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Washington State University
Style Guide

Style Guide

The ultimate aim for the SFS website is clarity. Give your visitors the information they want and need—no more, no less. Stick to the essentials and keep things as clear and concise as possible.

Focus on core content

Every single piece of content, every change or addition, needs to focus on:

  1. A specific audience that needs it
  2. The tasks those visitors want to accomplish
  3. SFS business goals for that audience
  4. Producing measurable results (use web analytics to identify what’s working and adjust as necessary)

For every page in the site, we should be able to articulate:

  • Visitor Tasks: What does the visitor want to do with this page?
  • Business Goals: How does this page help SFS achieve its business goals?
  • Outcomes: What measurable actions (to fulfill visitor tasks and SFS goals) will this page produce?

Substance and style

The ultimate aim for the SFS website is clarity. Give your visitors the information they want and need—no more, no less. Stick to the essentials and keep things as clear and concise as possible.

Clear calls to action

Link text should be brief, include action words, and take your visitors straight to the thing they want to do.

Primary calls to action—the things that are most important to the visitor’s task—will usually be highlighted in a box graphic. Keep them short, and focus on the action.

For instance, I want you to listen to death metal. It will be very good for you.

Get your death metal here

Secondary calls to action and links to related information should usually be presented as text links.
For instance, before filling out the FAFSA, you might also want to see how much aid you could get.

No walls of text

Keep paragraphs short. Single-sentence paragraphs are okay. Keep in mind, people will be reading these pages on smartphones and tablets; it doesn’t take much to fill up a small screen.

Use brief, informative headings to help visitors orient themselves in the page. Headings are vital signposts that help people scan through content to find what’s relevant to them.

Use lists to organize information and make it easier to scan and digest.

  • Bulleted lists are a great way to draw attention to important items.
  • Use numbered lists to present step-by-step instructions and processes.
  • As a general rule, lists should have no more than four or five items.
  • Also, list items should be short and simple.

With these techniques, even a really long, text-heavy web page can be clear and usable.

Friendly, professional language

This website should speak to its visitors the same way you would speak with a student at the financial aid help desk or a parent on the phone. Clarity is the ultimate goal.

  • Be as brief and concise as possible.
  • No need for formal diction. Contractions (you’re, we’ll, etc.) are preferable in most cases.
  • Whenever possible, we should use terms that are familiar to our visitors, many of whom have never tried to apply for financial aid before.

Explanatory notes and disclaimers should be placed after calls to action and core content, not before.

Avoid legal language and formal policy statements; they’re rarely clear or direct and never friendly.

If policy statements and legal language are necessary, they should ideally be in a formal letter or a supplemental document (e.g., a link to a PDF), not in the web page itself. If a legal/policy statement must go in a web page, make sure it doesn’t interfere with the task your visitor came for: getting financial aid questions answered.

Prioritize the information

What did your visitor come to this page to do? That’s always the first priority. That’s the core content.

Secondary content—anything that doesn’t immediately help a visitor get what they came to the page for, no matter how important it seems to us—should never get in the way of the core content.

Some ways to work secondary content into a web page:

  • Follow a strong call to action—the visitor’s primary task—with related secondary actions (usually text links, and usually no more than four).
  • Look for places in the page where the visitor is likely to be aware of a need for more information; you can use a text link without breaking the flow of the core content.
  • Put a “Next steps” or “More information” heading in the sidebar or at the end of the page.
  • Sidebars are often a good place for secondary content.

Whenever possible, present content in a series of logical steps. Numbered lists are a great way to help visitors navigate and prioritize the content on each page for themselves, especially when there’s a sequential process in play.

Editorial style

The SFS website uses sentence-style headings: capitalize only the first word in the heading.

For other questions of writing style—capitalization, punctuation, word usage, etc.—see the WSU editorial style guide.