Updated

Content principles

Our core principle is to write content that’s user-centered. It’s:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Accessible

We achieve this through a variety of methods.

Voice

BeDo not be
A source of truthExpressing opinions
Information providersService providers
Welcoming to everyoneOverbearing
FriendlyFake
OfficialCold or distant
ConversationalDisrespectful
StraightforwardBlunt
EmpatheticApathetic
Sensitive toward othersPretending to save people or know everything about them

Focus on needs and services

Give people what they need and direct them to services. Your website is not about telling people what to think about the government or your agency.

Requirements, not advice

People come to a government website to find out what they need to do. Do not give advice or make suggestions. Use should as little as possible.

Plain language

Plain language is clear and accessible to everyone, including readers with disabilities and limited English fluency.

  • Use simple words when possible.
    • Do not sacrifice clarity for simplicity.
  • Explain jargon when you have to use it.
  • Spell out acronyms when first used on a page or in an experience. If you use it later, put the acronym in parentheses after the first use.
    • If an acronym is better known than the full name, use it instead. Do not assume because it’s familiar in your workplace that everyone knows it. Default to spelling out the acronym.
  • Use positive phrases instead of negative ones. They’re easier to understand.
    • Example: write lack instead of do not have.

Clear sentences

  • Use active voice and strong verbs.
  • Turn gerunds into verbs where it makes sense.
    • Example: write help instead of helping.
  • Write in present tense.
  • Do not use pronouns like this, those, and these or references like as above. They’re vague. Restate what you’re referring to.
  • Write out or abbreviate months in dates. Some cultures interpret 9/5/2020 as May 9, 2020, instead of September 5, 2020.
  • Use numerals instead of spelling out numbers.
    • Only go to one decimal place. Only use decimals when you need to.
    • Use commas in numbers over 999. This helps people understand the order of magnitude.

Reading level

Write at a sixth grade level or lower. Some content may not be able to reach this goal, but look for opportunities to use simpler words and shorter sentences. Check reading levels with the Hemingway Editor. Eliminate very hard to read sentences and minimize hard to read sentences.

Be concise

Use short sentences and paragraphs. They’re easier to read and more accessible for all, regardless of reading level.

  • Have one thought per sentence.
  • Vary the lengths of your sentences and paragraphs to sound natural.
  • Remove words that do not add value.
    • Example: do not say please when telling a reader what to do.
  • Be direct and confident.

Organize content by importance

Put the most important content first on a page. This is often the content that applies to the most people. Content that applies to the least people (like specific groups) goes last.

Keep it conversational

Write how you speak. Read your writing out loud to hear how it sounds.

  • Imagine each period as a breath and each comma as a pause.
  • Use common contractions like you’ll, it’s, and we’ll.
    • Do not use contractions with “not,” like don’t and aren’t. When skimming, readers see do and don’t as the same.
    • Do not use uncommon contractions like this’ll, y’all, and ain’t.
  • Where it makes sense, start sentences with And or But to show the relationship between content and add a smooth transition.
  • Refer to people as you, and the government or agency as we. Don’t use me or my. It’s unclear if me refers to the reader or the writer.

We recommend AP Style with one exception: use the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma) to reduce confusion. It’s the comma that comes before and in: We brought apples, bananas, and oranges.

Accessibility

We write for all Californians.

Keep the following people in mind when you write:

  • Californians with limited financial resources
  • Californians without internet access
  • Californians who live in difficult housing situations (like those with domestic violence)
  • Californians struggling with depression or suicide
  • Californians without a fixed address
  • Californians with disabilities
  • Communities of color
  • Immigrant Californians
  • Tribal communities
  • Californians with limited or no English fluency
  • Rural Californians

When discussing benefits and supports, state:

  • Minimum requirements
  • Any income restrictions
  • If it’s available regardless of immigration status, including:
    • How their personal information is protected
    • Which immigrants are eligible
    • If it counts under the public charge rule

If writing for a specific audience, consider what languages the content should be translated into.

Get to know the people who use your site

Build Google Analytics and Search Console to find out what people are trying to find on your site and the words they’re using to do so. Modify your content or metadata to mirror their language.

Work with user researchers to do deeper testing to understand how well people can complete tasks. You can also discover needs you may not know about.

🚧 The California Design Handbook 🚧