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Writing Style Guide for our Manifesto Tracker

Posted in  by Matt CM
May 4, 2019


This post describes how we approach the writing for policy 'verdicts' that you see on our Tracker. It's firstly a guide for our volunteers who track policies, but it's also for everyone else who's interested in seeing how we work, and who wants to help us improve.

Who are writing for?

We want the Tracker to be useful for voters of all age groups and backgrounds, but we especially want to help younger audiences and those not typically interested or engaged with politics.

We know initially this site will probably reach those who are already engaged with politics in some way. But our aim is that the strength of this Tracker - through the quality of the writing - will be in its ability to engage those people who often feel politics is not something for them.

Tone

Every word matters, so to provide the best service we need to use the right tone. We are guided by these keywords:

  • Inclusive: we don’t assume people know what everything means, so we avoid acronyms or technical terms.
  • Simple: if we can say it with fewer words, we will! And we use simple language. We provide links to the detail so readers can get extra info if they want it.
  • Friendly: we want this to be enjoyable to read, so we write as if we are talking to an interested friend. That means colloquialisms and 'imperfect' grammar are up for grabs!
  • Non-judgemental: we are non-partisan and our aim is to inform. So we focus on the pledge, not the politics around it - that's for our readers to decide for themselves.
  • Independent: we focus on being consistent and fair, so we always explain our reasoning or where making any claim. We get expert advice from independent sources where we feel there is danger of subjectivity. We only link to official sources, and to balanced and credible journalism.

Structure

The aim is focus of our Tracker towards what users can do to get active/involved (via the Get Involved links, for example), and away from being a ‘policy Wikipedia’. For this reason, we are restricting the verdicts to three bullet points, preferably each with just one sentence. They are:

  1. What does the policy actually mean? Or at least, what do we think it means? Be sure to use plain language.
  2. What action has been taken? Link to the main evidence. If it’s complicated, you might need to list a few activities, but aim to keep it to one sentence. 
  3. What's the status (and rationale)? For example, “The promise to legislate has been fulfilled so this policy is ‘done’"

With this short format we are aiming to keep our verdicts to between 50-75 words. We do have to allow for more complex policies, so it's not always possible to stay under 75 words (as you'll see in one of the examples below). But brevity is key if we want our users to get the most from our writing, and crucially can move on to what they can do to get more involved in that particular issue.

Examples

Here are some examples to help explain the length and structure of the verdicts we're writing:


From Prioritise the environment in the next Budget

  • This is a promise that investment in environmental initiatives will be a major part of the government’s first Budget.
  • The March 2020 Budget did contain a host of green measures, although some groups and experts believe it didn’t do enough to tackle climate change.
  • Despite valid questions about outcomes and future plans, the Budget did “prioritise the environment”, so this policy is ‘done’.

From Ensure that work will always pay (this is the longer one)

  • This promise is to make sure welfare benefits received do not outweigh the income benefits of paid employment.
  • Since the election, the National Living Wage (NLW) has risen, and in their first Budget the government announced an increase in the National Insurance Contributions threshold (“saving the typical employee around £104”) along with a new higher target for the NLW by 2024, extended to everyone over 21.
  • The effect on making sure that “work will always pay” may be considered small, but these measures show that this policy is ‘in progress’.

From Review the pensions ‘taper problem’ within the first 30 days

  • This is a promise to review the ‘taper problem‘ within 30 days of being elected, working with the two key organisations representing NHS doctors.
  • Within the timescale the British Medical Association confirmed the review was underway, but we don’t have a clear indication yet that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) was consulted as part of this review.
  • While we await confirmation from the AMRC we’re marking this as ‘in progress’.

That's it. Have a look at other policy verdicts to see how other people have done it, and keep checking back to this page to refresh yourself about the structure.

Impartiality

Our volunteers cover the full political spectrum, but we are all committed to maintaining a non-partisan approach as we believe it's the best way to make politics more accessible for all. But even unintentional bias can get the better of most of us, so our review process specifically looks to pick this up any subjectivity. Things like:

  • Instead of “the government has easily delivered this early” we would write write “the government has delivered on their promise to do abc before the deadline of xyz ”.
  • Instead of “the government has failed to fully implement this” we would write “this policy is 'in progress' because the government has done abc, and we will consider it ‘done’ when xyz happens”.
  • Refer to the government, never the Conservative Party (as the party in government). The exceptions are when talking about a previous term of office or manifesto, or if we have asked a question to the Conservative Party directly.
  • Ambiguity like “Little has actually been done about this” or equally "This is pretty much done" won't get published. We can only link to evidence to prove something has been happened (in which the policy is ‘in progress’, ‘done’ or ‘broken’). If there is no evidence, it's ok to conclude nothing has officially happened, in which case the policy is ‘not started’.
  • Never pass judgement or comment on the value of a policy, or its potential for impact - good or bad. Our role is to provide information, so our readers can engage with the debate if they choose to (and we hope they will - whatever their political beliefs may be).

https://tracker.voteforpolicies.org.uk/contactAs we state on every policy page, we’re serious about providing clear, up-to-date, non-partisan information. But there is always room for debate. So if ever you think we've got it wrong or could make an improvement, please let us know.

What constitutes 'evidence'?

It's important that we link to evidence that provides exactly that - evidence. Typically this comes from government related sources, such as

  • Gov.uk for announcements, green papers, white papers
  • Parliament.uk for Bills or legislation
  • ONS for statistics
  • Lots of other government sources...

Sometime we can't offer evidence from official sources, but may be making an assumption based on what other organisations have told us or what we can gleam from various news sources. This is acceptable, as long as we are completely open in showing how we have arrived at a particular conclusion. We are keen to be challenged, and it's only by 'showing our working' that we will encourage useful challenges or feedback.

We also link to explainers, such as on the BBC, Channel 4, or Independent. These are useful for summarising issues, as long as they provide a balanced argument. We can link to news sources that are typically more partisan if they explain as aspect of the policy we want to talk about (such as controversial issues), but it's important not to take one opinion as a reflection of all opinions, so please provide proportionality.

We can also link to sector-specific new sources. These may be lesser known to the public, but widely considered as key information sources for people working in certain areas.

A few grammar points...

  • Use “double quotes” for quotes from people, organisations, or from documents.
  • Use ‘single quotes’ when writing the policy status - for example ‘in progress’, or ‘done’.
  • Government starts with a lowercase ‘g’ (unless at the start of a sentence, obviously!).

Thank you

Finally... if you're still reading this, it's hopefully because you care about what we're doing. Whether you are already a volunteer, planning on becoming one, or just curious - thank you.

We believe our Tracker represents a vital but missing piece of our democracy. We can't do it alone - and neither should we. If you have any feedback or want to support in any way, please get in touch.