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NC Department of Health and Human Services
Office of Public Affairs
 
 

Website Style Guide:
Chapter 2: Content and Writing Style

(Note: Content review material has been consolidated in Chapter 1.)

2.1 Sentence Structure

Make sentences and paragraphs as short as possible without affecting their meaning. Long, run-on sentences disrupt the flow of the website. Generally speaking, a sentence should not exceed twenty words and a paragraph should not exceed six sentences.

Use active voice rather than passive voice. Sentences written in the active voice are more concise and easier for visitors to understand.

Lists written in bulleted format where the bullet points form complete sentences should use capital letters at the beginning of the sentence and appropriate punctuation at the end.

Example:

  • Officials from the Division of Aging and Adult Services described some of the division’s services, noting that:
  • Health Support Services officials are available to help people and their families recognize and understand health problems.
  • At-Risk Case Management services include assessing and reassessing the service needs of clients.

Bulleted lists where the bullet points are words or phrases should use capital letters at the beginning of each bullet, no other capitals except for proper names, and no punctuation at the end.

Lists where bullet points are sentence fragments should use uppercase letters at the beginning of each point and should only include punctuation at the end of the entire list.

Example:

Case management services are provided by staff from County Departments of Social Services or Area Mental Health Agencies. Activities include:

  • Verifying the need for enhanced adult care home personal care
  • Assuring the adult care home’s plan corresponds to the needs of the resident
  • Reviewing the provision of care to assure changes in the resident’s conditions are being addressed
  • Determining the need for other community-based services
  • Assisting the resident and the adult care home in accessing other needed services.

When listing within a body of text, commas should appear after every item in the series, unless the word is followed by the word “and.”

Example:

  • Bald eagles, ospreys, herons, mergansers and kingfishers are native to this area.

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2.2 Language

Use plain language. Plain language is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

There are many writing techniques that can help you achieve this goal. Among the most common are:

  • Logical organization with the reader in mind
  • "You" and other pronouns
  • Active voice
  • Short sentences
  • Common, everyday words
  • Easy-to-read design features

Examples:

Before

Investigators at the contractor will review the facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor may conduct special audits of the provider’s medical records. Often, the contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and imprisonment.

After

We will take two steps to look at this matter: We will find out if it was an error or fraud.

We will let you know the result.

Before

Title I of the CARE Act creates a program of formula and supplemental competitive grants to help metropolitan areas with 2,000 or more reported AIDS cases meet emergency care needs of low-income HIV patients. Title II of the Ryan White Act provides formula grants to States and territories for operation of HIV service consortia in the localities most affected by the epidemic, provision of home and community -based care, continuation of insurance coverage for persons with HIV infection, and treatments that prolong life and prevent serious deterioration of health. Up to 10 percent of the funds for this program can be used to support Special Projects of National Significance.

After

Low income people living with HIV/AIDS gain, literally, years, through the advanced drug treatments and ongoing care supported by HRSA’s Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.

Avoid the use of acronyms and abbreviations as much as possible. Also try to avoid the use of technical jargon, as many readers may not know what the jargon means. When it is absolutely necessary to use an acronym, an abbreviation, or technical jargon, make sure that you define the term for the reader.

All content written for the general public of North Carolina should be between a 7 and an 8 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Reading Scale. Content written for other specialized audiences such as health care providers may have a higher reading level. See Section 2.2.1 for information on checking reading levels.

Always write instructions in the affirmative. Tell visitors to do something, rather than telling them not to do something else.

Avoid the use of metaphors and other figurative language, as some site visitors might take what you say literally.

Site visitors expect web content to be less formal than print content. Try to use a tone that is informal while still maintaining professionalism. This means that content may use the first person when speaking of the department (we or us) and use the second person when referring to the reader, when it is appropriate and not awkward to do so.

Examples:

  • Find out how DHHS can serve you. We protect health, foster self-reliance and protect the vulnerable in numerous ways.
  • To apply for food stamps, go to your county Department of Social Services.

Not:

  • To apply for food stamps, one should go to the appropriate County Department of Social Services

Organize all content into related pages and subsections. Use detailed headings to help visitors navigate.

Avoid the use of weak pronouns like “this,” “these” or “they,” as the reader might not be able to determine what you are referring to. Also avoid relative terms like “here” or “now.” Not every site visitor knows when and where you are writing the content.

2.2.1 How to Check the Reading Level of Your Document

To check the grade level of your content, open the document in Microsoft Word.

  1. On the “Tools” menu, select “Options,” then select “Spelling and Grammar.”
  2. Select the “Spelling and Grammar” box.
  3. Select “Show readability statistics,’’ then choose “OK”.

Word will now provide you with readability statistics every time you run a Spelling and Grammar check.

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2.3 Planning New Content

People come to a website with a specific task in mind. Good customer service means helping them complete their tasks without having to hunt, or interpret bureaucratic information.

A critical task is any action that:

  • A large number of people need to complete online
  • Is essential for people to accomplish quickly and easily.

Identify the mission—the purpose—of your website, to help you clarify the top task(s) your website should help people accomplish.

Extraneous information on DHHS websites makes it difficult for top tasks to be accomplished and results in poor customer service. Websites should not be used for project management among a small set of people or as a "filing cabinet" for project staff to keep track of past files.

No website should have “coming soon” or “under construction” pages. If the information does not exist yet, then do not create the page.

Avoid publishing redundant content. If the content you are about to publish is already available somewhere else on the web, simply supply a link to the page where it can be found. Having duplicate pages also increases the potential for outdated content, as one of the pages will most likely be updated regularly, while the other pages are left untouched.

Update content regularly. Date stamps should appear at the bottom of every page. Visitors will be less likely to visit your site if they think that nobody is taking the time to update it. Have a schedule of regular updates for all content. Keep a detailed inventory of all the pages that are added. You won’t be able to update a page if you forget that it exists.

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2.4 Web Content Versus Print Content

Make each page independent of other pages. Unlike a book, magazine, or other print publications, websites do not move in a sequential order from beginning to end. A site visitor can enter a page on your site without having seen any of the other pages, so you should never publish content that assumes the visitor has read content on other pages.

Be as concise as possible. It takes a someone longer to read the same amount of content on a computer screen than it would on a printed page, and visitors may lose patience if you take too long to say what you want to say. Web documents should not be any longer than 1,000 words, as visitors will begin to lost patience with anything longer. A good rule is that if you can take out a word without changing the sentence’s meaning, then you should.

Unlike articles written for the print media, web articles should not use indirect introductions. Some common indirect introductions are:

The Anecdote: When a writer starts a piece off by telling a story that is not directly related to the subject of the piece. (“It was a hot summer day back in 2001 when Ramon Martinez arrived in America for the first time.”),

The Barrage of Information: When a writer starts a piece with a series of facts that may be unrelated to the subject of the piece. (“Naperville is a small city just outside Chicago, well known for its bustling, high-tech economy.”)

The Personal Introduction: When the writer gives information about his or herself that the reader will most likely not be interested in. This includes writers who try to share their qualifications to write on the subject. These are important to include, but should come after the article rather than during it. (“My name is Ralph, and I have been an avid collector of model train sets for three years now.”)

The best way to begin an article written for the web is to directly discuss the topic at hand. Try to begin each page with the most direct, concise statement possible.

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2.5 Review of New and Revised Web Pages

2.5.1 What Needs Review

  • New web pages or new sections of websites.
  • Extensive revisions to existing pages (PIO and Content Manager may negotiate on what constitutes “extensive”).
  • Documents that have not gone through Public Affairs' publication review process.

2.5.2 What Does Not Need to be Reviewed

  • Links to new documents in a document collection (assuming there is a rigorous division review of documents in that collection, such as Medicaid bulletins, etc.).
  • Links to documents that have gone through the print PA-2 process.
  • Minor updates to existing information.

2.5.3 Basic Website Review Process, Before Page is Built

(Each Division may include more internal steps, such as Section Chief review.)

  1. The Subject Matter Expert (SME) sends information to the Web Content Manager, or directly to Webmaster copying the Web Content Manager. See guidelines for contributing web content (PDF, XKB). The SME includes in request (1) the audience of the material, (2) its placement on the site, and (3) wording of links. (4) If photos/images are included, s/he provides information regarding permissions and rights to include the image. See section 2.7 of the DHHS Web Style Guide for the kind of information required. (5) If the page is meant to be temporary, s/he provides a date for its retirement. (Note: for large websites, it is a best practice for SMEs to be designated, rather than for all division employees to be able to edit the website.)
  2. The Web Content Manager reviews and determines the following, consulting with the SME as needed (Web Content Managers from large divisions may groom one or two others in the division to help in this role. If so, such procedures should be documented and the SMEs alerted):
    • Confirms appropriateness of audience and placement proposed by the SME. (The Web Content Manager can overrule the SME, since the SME is the expert on the content but the Web Content Manager is the expert on the website.)
    • Suggests other logical links.
    • If the item does not fit within existing navigation, does new navigation need to be created? (Important: new navigation items require review and approval from the Department’s Web Manager.)
    • Is material duplicative of anything else? If so, how can the duplication best be eliminated?
    • Images/photos to be placed in the website have appropriate documentation regarding rights and receipts. (Section 2.8 of Web Style Guide)
    • The Web Content Manager writes keywords and description for webmaster.
    • Optional: Is material poorly written? Web Content Manager may ask Public Information Officer (PIO) for assistance. PIO may edit at that time, or choose to edit after page is placed on the test server.
  3. The Web Content Manager marks up or revises information as appropriate (consulting with the SME for any extensive edits). S/he sends material to the Webmaster.
  4. The Webmaster produces page and places on test server. S/he emails the SME and Web Content Manager when complete. (For time-critical information, material may be placed on production if prior approval is obtained from the Web Content Manager. This scenario must be the exception, not the rule, for new pages.)
  5. The Web Content Manager reviews for the items in the Review Checklist (below) (consulting with the SME for any extensive edits). S/he asks the webmaster to make edits, then sends page to the PIO.

2.5.4 Review Checklist for New and Revised Webpages (After Page is Built)

Th Web Content Manager requests PIO review. The PIO reviews for items in the Review Checklist below. (The PIO may delegate review to the Department’s Web Manager) and communicates changes to the division Web Content Manager, who provides them to the Webmaster (consulting with the SME for any extensive edits).

  • Information is written in plain language.
  • Information for those we serve is written to a 7th grade reading level (Chapter 2, Website Style Guide).
  • Except for “about us” pages, content is focused on the site visitor and what s/he needs to accomplish, not on our organization. Second person is employed as appropriate, especially in pages for those we serve. (Not: “We at the XYZ section do A, B and C.” Instead: “You can accomplish A by bringing Form B to Office C.”
  • Sections on the page are short and easy to scan.
  • Section headings are used to break up text. Headings are descriptive and concise, and use words that are meaningful to site visitors (instead of jargon).
  • Introductory text is included if needed.
  • The page looks fine on an 800 by 600 pixel screen. (Sometimes wide tables are a problem.)
  • Title tag is appropriate.
  • Breadcrumb trail is correct.
  • Appropriate left navigation item is highlighted, if applicable.
  • All links work.
  • Link text is appropriately worded: Meaningless words such as “information about” are not used. Link text is explanatory and not generic text such as “read more” or “click here.” (See Chapter 4, Website Style Guide.)
  • Content is relevant to a specific audience and is appropriately placed with other material for that audience.
  • Content is placed appropriately in context with the rest of the website (Chapter 2, Website Style Guide).
  • Title tag is appropriate (Chapter 1, Website Style Guide).
  • Information is in HTML, not PDF, unless PDF is absolutely necessary (Chapter 3, DHHS Website Style Guide).
  • PDF files are coded to be accessible to the disabled, or an accessible alternate format is provided. For simple documents without columns or tables, this means the file was not scanned, or was scanned with Optical Character Recognition (Web Standards for more information).
  • Smaller stylistic matters are consistent with the style guide ( A-Z Style Topics, Website Style Guide).
  • Unless this is a dated item that won’t be changed, URL is persistent. [For example, don’t call something “update10-2-09.htm” if the update is a living document that will need to be changed; links to it will break if the date in the URL is changed.]
  • Links to outside websites are denoted with this icon: offsite link 

2.6 Forms

(These guidelines were one outcome of the Government Content Team for the website redesign project, a cross-department advisory group.)

2.6.1 Placement of Forms on the Web

All online forms in the department should be placed on the Online Publications site. The department should not have pockets of forms scattered across numerous websites.

2.6.2 Quality Control of Forms on the Web

The quality control of forms in the department occurs at the division or office level. Some divisions may also delegate this function to the section level. This should be a formal process that ensures the following:

  • The latest paper copy of the form is the version that is on the web.
  • The form is designed for clarity.
  • It contains a unique name that clearly identifies its purpose.
  • It has an assigned number and revision date in either the bottom right or bottom left corner.
  • The assigned number should have the division acronym and perhaps the section acronym, according a numbering system the division devises.
  • If it is not apparent on the form that it is a North Carolina DHHS form, “NCDHHS” should be placed somewhere in the footer near the form number and revision date. (For divisions with a widely understood acronym, such as DSS, this requirement may not be needed.)
  • For divisions that have generic names that could apply to any department (e.g., Controller’s Office, Budget and Analysis, etc), the name of the department should be spelled out somewhere in the header or title.

For current forms that already have a number, no immediate action is recommended regarding the above items until the form is scheduled to be revised. For forms that are currently unnumbered, it is recommended that they be assigned a number as soon as practicable.

  • For forms translated into Spanish, it is recommended that they have the same number as the English version, with “sp” added at the end of it.
  • It is recommended that each division maintain a centralized list where form names are recorded, numbers are assigned, and the applicable section is noted. This is recommended even if the QC function resides in the section.
  • For Spanish forms, it is recommended that the footer information remain in English.
  • For forms that are interactive, another level of QC should occur to ensure that the interactivity was incorporated correctly (see file format recommendations above).

2.6.3 Possible Footer Formats for Forms

Use type that is no smaller than 5 point. Information can be right or left justified, on one line or multiple.

Minimal Required Information:

DMA 1820 (Rev.5/05) NCDHHS

Add the section name:

DSS 1820 (Rev.5/05) NCDHHS: Children’s Services

Add the file name and location:

DFS-3032 (Rev.5/05) MHL NCDHHS S:\Forms\1820

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2.7 Webmaster Email Contacts

All DHHS websites should have clearly labelled webmaster contacts throughout the website. These allow site visitors to report broken links or technical problems. The contact link may be accomplished via a web mail form or a “mailto” link. Web mail forms cut down on spam.

The webmaster contact information should be provided in page navigation on all pages. (The DHHS web template includes it in the footer). If there is already a “Contacts” or “Contact Us” link that is part of sitewide navigation, the webmaster contact information may be placed at the end of the contact page.

Emails to webmasters should be answered in no less than two business days. Responses should follow the “Customer Service Policy for Email” found in the DHHS Policy and Procedures Manual, Section III, “Customer Service Communications Guidelines”.

To provide sufficient backup, the webmaster contact information should go to at least three people designated by the division. These three must communicate their schedules so that webmaster emails are responded to in a timely fashion.

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2.8 Photographs and Other Images

DHHS staff who create and/or maintain web sites must maintain files of purchase receipts, permissions and licensing of all photographs and other images used on these web sites.

In general, there are two sources of images, those obtained by an outside entity, and those taken/created in-house. The guidance is different depending on the source.

Please note: This guidance is solely for photographs placed inside web pages, not inside documents (such as PDFs or Word files) that are then placed on web pages. For documents created by Public Affairs Graphics staff, the applicable permissions and licenses are kept on file in the Graphics Office. For documents created and formatted in divisions and offices, the responsibility for keeping track of the applicable permissions and licenses lies with the document creator.

2.8.1 Purchased Professional Photos

Professional photographs may be placed on our websites if they follow the owner’s licensing agreement, and if the receipt is kept on file with a copy of the licensing agreement. The Attorney General’s Office advises that photographs from companies based outside of the United States should not be used, and also that free downloaded images should only be used after careful reading of the offeror's terms of use.

There is no need to maintain the filename issued by the source of the photograph. Renaming according to the division’s own conventions is appropriate and recommended.

The division/office Web Content Manager or appropriate office purchasing manager is responsible for maintaining files containing receipts and licenses for all purchased professional photographs used in DHHS websites. These files shall be maintained according to the Public Records law.

Webmasters should document the location of the receipt in an HTML comment tag next to the photograph image tag, as follows:

  • Purchased from
  • Date of download
  • Downloaded by whom
  • Date of purchase [if a service was purchased earlier]
  • Date license expires, if applicable
  • Purchased by whom/office
  • Where the the receipt is on file:

For example:

<!-- Purchased from: photos.com, Date of download: 11-7-08, Downloaded by whom/office: Lois Nilsen, DHHS Public Affairs, Date of purchase: subscription purchased 8-2-08, Receipt on file: with Public Affairs Purchasing Administrator Lois Fitzgerald.-->

2.8.2 Photographs Taken by DHHS Employees or DHHS-Created Images

In-house photographs must be documented as well. If any people in the photograph are identifiable and easily seen, their permission must be obtained using a Consent to Photo Form. If the form was not obtained at the time the photograph was taken, and if it is not obtainable, then the photograph must be removed from the website.

The division/office Web Content Manager or appropriate office purchasing manager is responsible for maintaining files containing receipts and licenses for all purchased professional photographs used in DHHS websites. These files shall be maintained according to the Public Records law.

For all photographs taken by DHHS employees, the webmaster must document the following information. (If unsure of the date, put an approximate date):

  • Photograph taken by:
  • Date of photograph:
  • Where the Photo Consent Form is on file: (if applicable)

For example:

<!-- Photograph taken by Mary Smith, DMA, Date of photograph: March 20, 2008, Photo Consent Form: On file at DMA, XYZ Section Administrative Files. -- >

For example, when the subject of the photograph is not an identifiable person:

<!-- Photograph taken by Mary Smith, DMA, Date of photograph: March 20, 2008, Photo Consent Form: Not Applicable. -- >

2.8.3 Photo Guidance Walkthrough

If the photo is And Then
Unknown in origin

 

replace or delete it
Downloaded from a website (that is not in the business of providing photographs)

 

replace or delete it
Photo was supplied by a contractor who created the website you don’t have a copy of the receipt and/or licensing agreement either obtain those documents and file the receipt and licensing agreement per the guidance above, and include the information in a comment tag, per the guidance OR replace or delete it
A professional photo the origin is unknown replace or delete it
A professional photo obtained for a print publication and no web-specific license obtained replace or delete it
A professional photo the receipt is in your possession file the receipt and licensing agreement per the guidance above, and include the information in a comment tag, per the guidance
A professional photo the receipt is not in the possession of the division/office replace or delete it
A professional photo provided free from a commercial entity, such as Microsoft Photo Gallery file the terms of use provided in the website and document its location in the comment tag, per guidance above
Provided by a federal government source specifically for web usage

 

file the terms of use provided in the website and document its location in the comment tag, per guidance above
A professional photo from a stock photo CD the licensing agreement approves web usage file the receipt and licensing agreement per the guidance, and include the information in a comment tag, per the guidance above
A professional photo from a stock photo CD the licensing agreement does not specifically approve web usage replace or delete it.
Supplied by local agency for use in the website (for example, a DSS or LHD) release form is on file in the division or office file the information in a comment tag, per the guidance above
Photo supplied by local agency for use in the website (for example, a DSS or LHD) release form is not on file in the division or office obtain a release form and provide  the information in a comment tag, per the guidance above or replace or delete it.
Taken by a DHHS employee with the express purpose of placing it on the web a release form is on file that expressly approves web use file the information in a comment tag
Taken by a DHHS employee a release form that does not cover web use update the release form and provide  the information in a comment tag or replace or delete photo
Taken by a DHHS employee no release form is on file obtain a release form that expressly approves web use and provide the information in a comment tag, or replace or delte photo

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2.9 Annual Certification

Annual certification provides a review of web content to ensure that it is accurate, relevant and up-to-date. Links on each page should be checked to ensure they are still appropriate. (Sometimes a site is retired and pornographic content is put in its place. Or sometimes the owner of the site moves information around and the page may not be relevant any more.)

Every page of every website must be reviewed by the owning division or office, and the certification documented with a memorandum from the Web Content Manager to the Division Director and the DHHS Web Manager. Annual certification is required in Section III of the DHHS Policy and Procedure Manual: Public Websites in DHHS.  

2.9.1 Certification Timeline

July

Public Affairs prepares lists of each page of each division/office website and provides them to the division Web Content Managers.

July to November 15

Web Content Managers identify content experts and assign them the pages in their area for review. (For smaller sites, the Web Content Manager may be the content expert.) Content experts will confirm (1) that each page is relevant, (2) that dated material is the most current available, and (3) that the links are appropriate. If needed, the content experts request the appropriate changes to make all pages relevant and current with appropriate links. Content managers are free to set internal division/office deadlines to meet the overall departmental deadline.

November 15

Annual review of all material on the division/office website must be completed by the 15th of each November. By that date, the Web Content Manager of each division and office writes a memorandum addressed to their division/office director and to the director of Public Affairs.

“The Division of XX certifies that every webpage on its public website[s] [provide a list of sites] is accurate, relevant, and-up to-date. "

"We certify that these are all the public websites which the division owns (that is, created with its resources or personnel or has content written or managed by the division).”

"As Web Content Manager for DXX, I have on file a list of each web page [in each website] managed by the division. The list includes verification that each page has been checked by the relevant content expert."

If there is a set of pages which are not completed, the Web Content Manager notes it in the memorandum and specifies a date when they will be completed. They then send a followup email or memorandum that it has been done.

2.9.3 Criteria

When reviewing content for relevance, use these basic categories to determine content status and the most appropriate action to take:

Content Disposition in Annual Certification
Category If the content is ... and it ... then it is... and you should ...
1 still accurate and relevant accurately reflects current decisions and/or activities OR is valid until superseded current leave it alone.
2 still relevant requires updates to be current and accurate outdated revise it and post the new version to the website
3 still relevant for reference or legal purposes, but is superceded by other information cannot be updated historical archive it (see section 2.10 below)
4 no longer relevant is not required for reference or legal purposes obsolete remove it from the Web site and take the appropriate action per the appropriate records schedule.

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2.10 Archiving Documents

Outdated content that cannot be brought current but must be retained for legal or reference purposes must be marked clearly as “archive” material.
If the information is on a webpage, include this disclaimer at the top of the page, just under the page title. If the information is in a PDF document, the page that links to the file should have the following disclaimer, and the disclaimer should appear next to the link. 

For example:

“The file is provided for reference purposes only. It was current when produced but is no longer maintained and may now be outdated.”

The document should be moved to an “archive” folder and the archive folder should be removed from search, so that it cannot be found by the DHHS or commercial search engines. To remove a folder from search, send a request to the Web Manager in Public Affairs.

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