Writing content for UAS websites

When writing for UAS websites, content editors should follow the guidance below. This will ensure that our content is clear, inclusive and user-focused.

Make sure to use this guidance together with the style guide and UAS content review checklist [PDF].

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All communications by UAS sections should reflect the professional and service-oriented character of our work.

As online reading behaviour differs significantly from print, web content suits a more conversational tone. However, a balance is needed to avoid readers finding content inappropriate or patronising. Research commissioned by GOV.uk suggests that this is especially true in legal and transactional contexts. To maintain consistency across different UAS websites, all content editors should follow the framework below.

Friendly and credible

Our audience are mainly colleagues, but also students and the general public. These groups will appreciate a friendly tone of voice in our writing, yet will not trust information presented in a too familiar tone or colloquial style.

Confident and compassionate

UAS content editors are often experts in their field. Our audience, however, will usually be new to a topic. We want to explain complex processes confidently, but with compassion for our readers’ lack of background knowledge and time.

Clear and engaging

A professional tone does not need to be dry. Neither does an engaging style necessarily sound insincere. We want to speak to our audience in a clear way, while maintaining their attention and interest.

Individual decisions on tone

Within the above framework, there is some room for individual tone for UAS content editors. 

Content written to introduce the work at a nursery does not require the same tone as information about pension schemes. It is acceptable and even beneficial for UAS sections to develop their own tone of voice, as long as it is in line with the general UAS tone. It is up to the responsible Managing Editor to choose the appropriate tone of voice for their section and for different types of content.

Active voice

Use the active voice as much as possible in text, and leave passive constructions for headings. Using the active voice makes our writing clearer and more concise.

  • Bad example: It is hoped that this information will be considered useful.
  • Good example: We hope you will find this information useful.  


Avoid jargon wherever possible. Jargon makes it more difficult for people to understand and use our content, as it can lead to vague and meaningless texts. Experts agree that people find jargon-heavy text less trustworthy. Our aim is to make our content as usable and credible as possible.

A good way to avoid jargon is being more open and specific. Ask yourself: ‘What is it that we are actually doing?’

  • Bad example: We deliver strategic initiatives to facilitate environmental sustainability at Oxford University.
  • Good example: We work with departments and local authorities to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency at Oxford University. 

GOV.uk have published an internal list of words to avoid. While not exhaustive, this list gives you an idea of the kind of language that could confuse your readers.  

Plain English

Most of our web content is directed at University staff – a large and diverse group of people. Our aim is to write as clearly and accessibly as possible, so that everyone is able to use our content efficiently.  Plain English rules can help to achieve this. Writing in Plain English means to:

  • keep your sentences to a maximum of 20 words
  • prefer short and everyday words where appropriate
  • use active verbs as much as possible
  • use 'you' and 'we'
  • not be afraid to give instructions
  • avoid nominalisations

Following these guidelines will open up your content and make it clearer. It will allow users to better navigate your content and find information more quickly.

  • Bad example: The Academic Administration Division (AAD) provides leadership and coordination in the development and delivery of administrative support for teaching and learning across the collegiate University.
  • Good example: The Academic Administration Division (AAD) is the University’s group of services focused on students and learning. We provide the support and information that students need to thrive in their academic and personal lives.

To help with cutting out unnecessary words on their site, Transport for London published a list of simpler alternatives for superfluous words and phrases.

General advice

Language is important for an open and inclusive environment. We do not want to use language that could – even unintentionally – make some of our readers feel excluded or disempowered. To achieve this, we take care not to reinforce stereotypes or make assumptions about people. It is important to note that inclusive terminology is constantly changing. Guidelines and advice may not keep up with these changes, and as such this cannot be a definitive guide.

The images, profiles and case studies we use on our website should be fully representative of our staff and student community.

When creating webforms, consider carefully if you require users to give details of their sex, age, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion or any disability. If this information is required, you should offer users the option to select ‘prefer not to say’ where possible. You should also explain why you are collecting this data, how it will be stored and what it is used for. For more information refer please refer to the University’s Data Protection policy.

The University’s Equality and Diversity Unit is happy to help with any questions you might have. You can email them at equality@admin.ox.ac.uk.

Sexual orientation

Umbrella terms like gay or homosexual cannot be assumed to be acceptable to all.

The University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans + Advisory Group uses the acronym LGBT+ rather than LGBTQ. Whilst the term queer (the Q in LGBTQ) has been reclaimed by some, others still see this as a derogatory term. The + is inclusive of other groups, such as asexual, intersex, queer, questioning etc.

Also see Stonewall’s guide to inclusive digital services for LGBT+ users.

Sex and gender

Distinguishing between sex and gender means to recognise that someone’s biological sex is separate from their social role (gender) or personal identification (gender identity).

Gender specific terms like ‘mankind’, ‘manpower’ or ‘sportsmanship’ have fallen out of common use in publications, as they are seen to reinforce stereotypical gender roles.

Similarly, where appropriate use more neutral terms like ‘family leave’ instead of ‘maternity leave’.

Gender identity

Gender identities exist on a spectrum and may not always be binary. This means that there are more gender identities than ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

Using ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ is therefore recommended to include everybody.

  • Example: If the applicant is shortlisted, they will be invited for interview. Or rewrite the sentence to avoid using pronouns that make assumptions.
  • Example: Shortlisted applicants will be invited for interview.

If you are writing about a specific person, make sure to use the pronouns they prefer.

Transgender or trans is used as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. If you are unsure about which terms to use, refer to the glossary in the University’s Transgender Policy and Guidance.    

The Equality and Diversity Unit offers more information on good practice in communication.

Writing about disabilities and health conditions

Mention the individual before making any reference to their disability. Do not equate the individual with their condition and avoid using disempowering language.

Write about ‘people with disabilities’ instead of using ‘the disabled’, though ‘disabled people’ may be an acceptable usage. However, not everybody who needs disability benefits and services identifies with having a disability. Consider using ‘people with health conditions or impairments’ if this seems more appropriate.

Avoid phrases like ‘suffers from’, especially when writing about a range of people whose state of mind you do not know. It is enough to say that people ‘have’ a condition or disability, or that they ‘live with’ one.

Avoid terms like ‘stroke victim’ which carry connotations of passivity and hopelessness. Use ‘person who has had a stroke’ instead.

People who use a wheelchair may not view themselves as ‘confined’ to their mobility aid.

Writing about race and ethnicity

The way we talk about race and ethnicity varies from country to country. In the UK it is common to refer to BME (Black and minority ethnic) and BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities.

BME is more commonly used at Oxford University. However, both terms have limitations. In some instances, the term People of Colour is used to refer to any group that is not White.

Avoid references that draw undue attention to ethnic or racial backgrounds. When references are valid, use the term preferred by the group concerned.

Capitalise Black just as you would capitalise nationalities or regional identities. It is helpful to capitalise White to emphasise that it is also an ethnicity.

Use ‘marginalised groups’ or ‘underrepresented groups’ instead of ‘minorities’.

If needed, use ‘minority ethnic groups’ rather than ‘ethnic minority groups’ to avoid emphasis on ethnicity as the main issue.

The concept of ethnicity assumes that a group of people share an identity, and therefore consider themselves part of the same ethnic group. However, some people are being ascribed a racial or ethnic identity by a dominating group – an identity they did not share originally. In such cases, it is more considerate to use the term ‘racialised group’.

  • Example: minority ethnic and racialised groups can experience discrimination

Advance HE provides more guidance on approaching terminology around race and ethnicity.

Online reading behaviour

Research has shown that people use webpages very differently to print publications. Rather than reading a page from top to bottom, users skim web content and typically only read 20 to 28% of a page. Users who simply want to complete a task are likely to read even less.

If we want users to quickly find what they are looking for, we should do our best to organise our content according to their reading behaviour.

‘Inverted pyramid’

Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ approach and put the most important information at the top of the page. Begin with answering questions: what, who, when, where, why? Follow up with important details. Everything that is background information and context should come later.

Page length

There is no definite point when a webpage becomes too long and it is not feasible to stick to a maximum word count. It is far more important that users find your pages well organised and the content easy to understand.

Jakob Nielsen found that for each additional 100 words, users will spend only 4.4 seconds more on a page (enough to read about 18 words). This means that the longer your page is, the easier you should make it for users to scan for keywords.


We know that most users scan the content area of webpages in an F-shaped pattern. They look across the top, then move down vertically on the left until they find what they are looking for. Therefore place important information and keywords at the beginning of headings and paragraphs. This practice is called frontloading.

  • Bad example:

Training for researchers who work with lasers
Only suitably trained individuals are permitted to work with open beam lasers. The supervisor must identify the appropriate level of training required and outline these requirements within the relevant local rules. As a starting point, all users of open beam lasers must undertake the University's Introduction to Laser Safety course – details of which are provided in the link below.


  • Good example:

Laser safety training
All users of open beam lasers must undertake the University's Introduction to Laser Safety course. Only suitably trained individuals are permitted to work with open beam lasers. The supervisor must identify the appropriate level of training required and outline these requirements within the relevant local rules.


Avoid long paragraphs with more than 5 to 6 sentences. Consider that a growing number of users will read your content on a mobile device, where 5 sentences would take up the entire screen. It’s fine for paragraphs to only include 1 or 2 sentences.

Users often only read the first sentence of a paragraph before they decide whether to skim further or to investigate in more details. If you have multiple paragraphs on a page, review all opening sentences as a sequence. They should be distinctive enough for the reader to orientate themselves on the page easily.


Use descriptive subheadings to break up your content. Insert keywords that users are looking for. Do not use questions as subheadings and avoid technical terms. Paragraphs should still make sense without the subheading.


Use bullet points to make text easier to read.

Make sure that

  • you always use a lead-in line (like ‘Make sure that’ above)
  • the bullets make sense running on from the lead-in line
  • you use lower case at the start of the bullet
  • you do not use more than one sentence per bullet point – use commas or dashes to expand on an item
  • you do not put ‘or’ or ‘and’ after the bullets
  • if you add links, they appear within the text and not as the whole bullet
  • you do not put a semicolon at the end of a bullet
  • there is no full stop after the last bullet point

If you are guiding a user through a process, use numbered steps instead of bullets.


Try and insert links at the end of a sentence, as links tend to disrupt reading patterns. Use active verbs like ‘read’ or ‘submit’ and make them specific.

Do not use headings or subheadings as links.

Consider carefully whether the content behind the link should open in the same tab of the web browser or a new tab.

It is often best to let the user decide how they want to open a link. However, there are some general guidelines to consider:

Use the same tab when

  • you are linking to a page within your own website
  • the user has nothing left to do on the original page (for example when you link from an overview page to more detailed content)

Open a new tab when

  • you are linking to something that’s not a webpage (a PDF or similar)
  • the user is in the middle of a process, and the link leads to background information the user should refer to (for example selection criteria or policies)

Help users find your content

Page titles and descriptions are metadata – they do not necessarily appear on your content page but contain information about it that can be used by search engines. Adding useful metadata to your pages will help users to find your content.

When creating a page in Mosaic, you can add title and description under the ‘details’ tab. Page titles are required, but you can choose if you want your title to be displayed on the page. Descriptions are not mandatory in Mosaic, but it is good practice to add this information to each page.

Choosing good page titles

Page titles should be user focused, clear and descriptive so that users can quickly decide if they have found the right content page. They can (and often should) be different to the title of the policy or scheme they relate to, as users might not know the official name.

  • Bad example: Health Surveillance
  • Good example: Health risks that require surveillance   

It is important that you use the same language as your users. Find out what people call your content by using tools to look up keywords users are searching for. Prioritise those keywords in your titles, summaries, introductions and subheadings.

Note, for example, that GOV.UK call their page about bursaries and scholarships 'extra money to pay for university'.

Title length

Your title should not be longer than 65 characters (including spaces). Longer titles are hard to understand and will be cut off in Google search results.

Page titles should also:

  • use a colon to break up longer titles
  • not contain dashes or slashes
  • not have a full stop at the end
  • not use acronyms unless they are well-known, like EU

Make your title clear and descriptive

Do not use general page titles such as ‘Responsibilities’ or ‘Training’. Provide full context so that users can easily see if they’ve found what they’re looking for.

  • Bad example: Training for staff
  • Good example: Lab safety training for researchers

Writing helpful descriptions

The description (or summary) of a webpage is what users see in search results, together with the page title. Write a helpful description for each page you are creating in Mosaic. It should give users a good idea of what your content page is about. Do not repeat the title in the description, but try to include keywords, especially those you haven’t been able to use in the title.

  • Example:

Page title: Health risks that require surveillance 

Description: Occupational Health Services conducts Health Surveillance programmes to detect ill-health related to hazardous substances and processes in the workplace.

Avoid unnecessary introductions such as ‘This page outlines…’. Get straight to the point by using active language: ‘When applying for a Tier 2 visa…’.

Description length

Your description should not be longer than 160 characters (including spaces). Google usually only shows the first 160 characters in search results. This means that if you want to write a longer description, you should outline the main point of the page in the first 160 characters.

Give quick answers in the description

If there is a straight-forward answer to a user question, put it in the summary. Users will then see it in the search results (for example contact details).

Naming images

When you upload images to Mosaic, make sure to pay attention to the following attributes for each file:

  • file name
  • title
  • alt text
  • caption

File name

Mosaic will create a unique url for each image, using the file name the image had when you first uploaded it to the platform. Be therefore sure to use informative and professional file names.

Image title

The image title is displayed in a popup when users hover their mouse over an image. Do make sure to give each image a sensible title. Without a title, Mosaic will display the caption and attribution instead (if given).

Alt text

Alt text (or alternate text) appears inside the image container when the image cannot be displayed. It helps search engines understand what an image is about.

Screen reading software will read the alt text of an image. The alt text should therefore be helpful to people who cannot see the image. If your image is a link, the alt text should tell the user what the link does. If the image contains information, the alt text should summarise that information. If the image is simply decorative, the alt text should describe it in a couple of words. The alt text field cannot be left empty in Mosaic.


Captions for images are usually only used in news articles and image galleries. Captions do not simply describe the image, but link the image to the text, for example by repeating a statement or a fact from the article.

Note that changes to these attributes will come into effect on every page you are using the image. If you want to reuse an image with a different title or caption, you will have to upload it a second time under a different file name.

Naming documents

When naming files (like PDF documents) for the web, make sure that you

  • only add a date when different versions of the same document are online (and need to be online)
  • replace any spaces in the file name with underscores (spaces are often replaced with ‘%20’ in urls)
  • are consistent in your use of capital letters

Assistance with UAS websites

Lead editors - email uas.communications@admin.ox.ac.uk

Site editors should only contact the lead editor of their site

See information on the UAS website support process