Writing style

Writing for digital is different to writing for print.

Content must be user-focused, scannable and accessible across all devices.


Your writing will be most effective if you understand who you’re writing for.

To understand your audience you should research:

  • behaviour — what the user is interested in or worried about, so your writing will catch their attention and answer their questions
  • vocabulary — so that you can use the same terms and phrases they will use to search for information

For multiple audiences, make your writing as easy to read as possible so it’s accessible to everyone.

Plain English

Government content needs to communicate in a way that most people understand.

The best way to do this is by using common words, or plain English.

Writing in plain English means using simpler and more direct language.

It does not mean ‘dumbing down’ information. Plain English helps people make decisions and builds trust.

Plain English improves readability for all users.

How to write in plain English

  • Avoid jargon so the user can understand the content the first time they read it.
  • Use active voice — not passive.
  • Use the shorter, plain English word, term, sentence and paragraph over the longer.
  • Minimise punctuation. Use several short sentences instead of a long sentence broken up with punctuation.
  • Aim for an age 9 reading level.

Make sure all of the users can understand

If you’re writing for a specialist audience, you still need to make sure everyone can understand what the content is about.

Write in plain English so everyone can understand, regardless of their ability.

Think about the needs of users who speak a language other than English.

Plain English words and terms

Don't write this Write this
a number of some, many, few
address this issue look for solutions, solve this problem
approximately about
adequate number of enough
aggregated total
amongst among
as a consequence of because
ascertain find out
assist help
at a later date later
at the time of writing, at this point in time now
cognisant of aware of, know
collaborate with working with
commence start, begin
concerning about
consequently so
create a dialogue with them speak to them
deliver, drive say what you are doing, for example 'increasing' ...
despite the fact that although
disburse pay
discontinue stop
dispatch send
documentation documents
due to the fact that because, since, as
during the month of September in September
establish create, set-up, form
examine look at, check, discuss
facilitate help
give consideration to think about, consider
going forward future
have the capacity to can
identify set, create, decide on, know, recognise
if this is not the case if not
if this is the case if so
impact upon affect
in accordance with in line with
implement apply, install, do
in order to to
in receipt of get, have, receive, receiving
in relation to about
in the event of, in the event that if, when
in the light of, in view of because of
it is requested that you declare you should declare
it should be noted that note that, remember that
key, important, primary main
leverage use, build on
make an application apply
make a complaint complain
methodology method
notwithstanding even though, though
obtain get, have
prior to before
primary main
provide give
provide a response to respond to
provide assistance with help
pursuant to under
reach a decision decide
require need or must
subsequently after
table (verb) — unless tabling a document in parliament address, discuss, release
that is the reason why that is why
the way in which how
the reason is because because, the reason is
thereafter then, afterwards
until such time as until
upon on
utilise use
whether or not whether
with reference to, with regard to, with respect to about, regarding
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Readability is about how easy or hard it is for a user to understand text.

Content with a good readability level helps users know what to do. This includes users with lower comprehension skills.

Aim to make content as readable as possible. This makes it more accessible for everyone, not only users with low literacy. Plain English helps specialist and technical audiences too.

Aim for age 9 reading level

It’s good to aim for age 9 reading level. Someone who is age 9 would be in Australian Year 3 or Year 4.

WCAG criteria 3.1.5 (Level AAA) recommends you write to lower secondary education level. This is Year 7 to Year 8 in Australia, or between 12 to 14 years old.

Even if you aren’t able to achieve an age 9 reading level, the more readable you can make content the better it is for everyone.

How people read

When most people reach age 9 reading level the way they read content has changed.

By 9 years old most children stop reading whole words and start reading by recognising shapes. This allows people to read much faster.

Most readers don’t read single words in order. They bounce backwards and forwards, especially online. They expect words and fill them in.

An adult brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand the content.

When a user reaches a word or phrase that is unfamiliar or difficult it slows down their understanding. If they experience too much of this they lose confidence in the content and may give up.

A person’s vocabulary will grow as they age but the shape-recognition skill stays with them.

Use readability tools with care

Readability tools can show where you can improve content. They can also give you useful metrics to use to suggest changes to stakeholders.

Readability tools often use US school grades as a guide. These are different to Australian grades, so it can better to talk about age instead.

Some tools give suggestions to make text more readable. Be careful using automatic recommendations. Sometimes the user will be more familiar with a longer keyword.

Flesch reading ease

The ‘Flesch reading ease’ index is a common measure for content. Many readability tools use it. The index is a scale from 1 to 100. A higher score is easier to read.

A score of 100 on the Flesch reading ease index should be readable by someone who reads at US school Grade 5 level. This is an age 10 to 11 reading level. But it’s better to aim for age 9 (between US Grade 3 and Grade 4).

There are other popular scales used by readability tools. For example, Hemingway Editor uses the automated readability index, which is also based on US school grades.

Don’t just test the reading level

As well as readability, you need to test:

  • findability — can users easily find it?
  • comprehension — can users understand it?
  • engagement — do users read enough of it to understand or skim over it?
  • effectiveness — does it provide the right information/answers and cover what the user needs to know?
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The modern government tone is direct, calm and understated:

  • Speak politely and use language that is positive but sensitive and respectful.
  • Be aware who you are writing for.
  • Be conscious of what the user needs to do.
  • Tell the user what they need to know.


Use first and second pronouns (I, we, us and you) to establish a connection with the user.

Avoid third person nouns (Australian Government Department of X) and pronouns (he, she, it and they).

Example of


Like this:

Tell us if you have trouble with your account.

Not this:

If the subscriber is having difficulty accessing their account, the finance team can provide further guidance.

Use ‘they’ and ‘them’ when talking about, rather than to someone or something.

Example of

third person pronouns

User research is a team sport. We’re all responsible for meeting their needs.

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Use active voice (subject-verb-object).

Use first and second person (we, us) instead of third person (he, she, it and they).

Active voice gets straight to the point.

Avoid passive voice (object-verb-subject).

Passive voice usually makes it difficult to know who did what to whom and sends the reader backwards.

Example of

using active voice

Like this:

  • The committee (subject) campaigned (verb) to lower diabetes (object).
  • We (subject) did not accept (verb) your application (object).

Not this:

  • The lowering of diabetes was campaigned for by the committee.
  • It was deemed your application was unsuccessful.

You can use passive voice if you can’t specify the do-er of the action.

Example of

using passive voice

The part-time role was approved in March.

Use contractions carefully to be more conversational.

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