Writing Style Guide

Hello. This post describes how we approach the writing on Policy 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, helping us improve and stay honest.

Who are writing for?

We want Policy 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 Policy Tracker – through the quality of the writing – will be in its ability to engage those people who feel politics is not something for them.

The tone

Every word matters, so to provide the best service we need to use the right tone. At the moment, 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. And we only link to neutral, credible or official sources.

The structure

We aim to keep our verdicts under 250 words, and we also adopt a consistent structure for our verdicts. The structure consists of the following four parts.

Part 1. Introduction

What is this policy about? Referring back to the tone, use normal, friendly language to describe what this policy is about. Things you might need to include are:

  • What it actually means! If there are any acronyms or technical terms, clarify them up front so the reader knows what this is about.
  • What we’re measuring. Refer back to the manifesto quote which is where the extra detail is. Let the reader know if there’s something specific that the title doesn’t tell them.
  • Any challenges. Sometimes the wording or the nature of the promise means tracking it will be challenging. Be open about any problems we’re facing, and how we plan to approach them.

Part 2: Progress

What has happened since the election? This is the main part of the verdict, so remember to:

  • Focus only on what has changed since the government came to power. Anything before that could be useful as context, but doesn’t count towards progress.
  • Include in-line links (like that) to evidence that you feel is proof of activity, and from which basing the status of your verdict (in progress, ‘done’ or ‘broken’.
  • Evidence of policy progress can only come from government sources, or official, independent publications.
  • If there is no evidence any action has been taken for your policy, that means it’s probably ‘not started’ (and you can’t link to anything!).

Part 3: Conclusion

A final sentence or two to bring it all together.

  • Summarise the evidence (remind readers of the based on if there are a few pieces that collectively make up your status).
  • Confirm the status (‘not started’, ‘in progress’, ‘done’ or ‘broken’).
  • Confirm what evidence you’re expecting to see before this policy can progress to the different stage (e.g. move from ‘in progress’ to ‘done’).

Part 4: Links

You’ve probably read lots of great articles and papers in the coarse of writing your verdict, so why not share them.

  • Be creative with the heading. Instead of ‘Further information’, how about ‘Love the detail?’, ‘Need more?’ or even a cheesy pun based on the policy title (there are a few crackers out there!). Have fun with it.
  • Use the title of the page you’re linking to as the link, then a dash, followed by the source. Like these two below.

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.

When you submit your policy it will be reviewed by two different Editors based on how well it follows the structure, so you’ll get feedback as you go. To submit your policy for review, read the guide on How to… Upload a new policy.

Examples

In these two examples, we have overlaid this four-part structure onto real verdicts…

Verdict for Deliver half a million homes between 2021 and the end of 2022
Verdict for Get advice from the Migration Advisory Committee on our visa system

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 assume nothing has officially happened, in which case it 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).

As 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.

Policy 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.