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You shared, we listened — updates to the 18F Content Guide

This summer, we published the 18F Content Guide — our internal style guide — and made it available to anyone who might like to adapt it for use in their own organization. We’ve heard that some folks are already adapting it, which we find really exciting.

More exciting, though, are all the suggestions for updates and improvements we’ve received from you — all of you. As an agile content team within the federal government, we’re used to delivering minimum viable products (MVPs) that work well but might be a bit rough around the edges.

Why do we deliver MVPs? To provide the user, reader, or customer access to a functional product (offering an immediate solution) while giving the user a chance to share their feedback. User feedback is central to our process: It’s how we determine which changes to make and the order in which we’ll make them. Our goal is always to provide the most effective, easiest-to-use product we can.

When we shared the Content Guide, we knew we’d continue to improve it using your feedback, and we plan to keep refining it as you continue sending us your ideas. We’ve already received great feedback by email, through posts on other blogs, and in our GitHub repo.

Here’s a sampling of some of the improvements we’ve made recently based on your suggestions:

  • We expanded our active voice section to include more information about when using passive voice might be preferable to using active. (We also added a handy test you can use to determine whether you’re writing in passive — it involves zombies, incidentally.)

  • We included guidance on en-dash usage.

  • We removed the term Sticky Notes from our specific words and phrases page and included it in a new section (more on that below).

We also made a larger addition to the guide: a section on trademarks and brands. Most of us talk or write about trademarked products each day, often without realizing it. Government content creators have to be mindful of mentioning brand-name and trademarked products to avoid unintentionally endorsing those products. This new section of the guide includes a list of trademarked products (some of which you may not even recognize as trademarked!), along with neutral alternatives to use instead. The next time you find yourself writing about a Band-Aid, pause for a moment and consider using adhesive bandage, instead.

You can also now find guidance on how to use images in your content. We’ve included the rules we follow at 18F, but also some general guidelines on choosing images, making them accessible, and writing captions.

Last (but certainly not least), we also added a section on voice and tone. In it, we cover the differences between the two, provide an overview of 18F’s brand voice, and offer some strategies you can use to craft a standout voice for your organization.

Our intent in sharing the 18F Content Guide was to provide a jumping-off point for content creators who are working without style guides and for editors or content strategists who are creating or updating their own guides. Because our guide covers many of the basics of content creation (being concise, using active voice, using plain language, and so forth), it’s a great starting point for folks who would like to craft their own guides but don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

Our guide isn’t meant to be comprehensive; rather, it’s an adaptable framework that you can take and make your own. That’s why you’ll see terms like “open source” and “front end developer” in our guide. Folks at 18F encounter those terms all the time, but if the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted our guide, they could ditch the front end developer rules and replace them with guidance on mortgage-backed securities.

Thank you for your feedback! We encourage you to keep it coming. Visit our GitHub repo or drop us a line — we can’t wait to talk content with you.

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