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We often receive ‘tone of voice’ or editorial guidelines to follow when writing for large organisations. Generally they don’t tell us anything new or different about writing. But at least they afford us a defence for writing clearly and concisely, and for removing the worst cases of jargon.

There are good guidelines and bad. Lloyd’s of London sticks in my mind as an example of the former. Other guidelines throw up some delights that are hard to forget: The T-Mobile guidelines with the page headed Grammer is one. Or the Lloyds TSB bullets that ask us to Do….Benefit-led and Don’t…Feature-led. Then there are the Vodafone guidelines that suggest not using foreign words or phrases, exactly one page before telling us that one of Vodafone’s personality traits is joie de vivre. Classic.

Almost all of them, in the manner of Vodafone above, use very passive language to tell us to use the active voice rather than the passive voice, sometimes even stating that “the passive voice should not be used.” Probably a clue to the fact that many guidelines are plagiarised from other firms’ versions by people who generally don’t understand the instructions anyway.

But recently I came across a set of guidelines that were almost perfect. Quite incredibly, they were for a government organisation, The Environment Agency. OK, they’re a bit long, and no doubt people will be able to find fault. But they do include a lot of very good advice, in many different ways, so I’ve attached the pdf


The best bit is page 32-36, which offers a withering rebuttal of some of the nonsense we have to deal with daily – stakeholders, engage, step change, roadmap, robust and so on. Most importantly, it deals with that horror of a verb that seems to be used now to mean almost anything – deliver.

Other highlights are some sound advice on page 8, and also on 36-37. Plus, on page 26, there’s a cracking before and after example using an extraordinary letter that was actually sent to a member of the public.

Much of the document calls for plain English, which I’m sure will elicit howls of disapproval from the literary luvvie school of copywriters, who for some reason think they perform some higher art form. But much of the Environment Agency’s job is to communicate with the general public, and provide them with clear information. Which, funnily enough, is also a copywriter’s job.


  1. Clare Lynch says:

    Reading those guidelines was like the professional equivalent of finding my soul mate. They just, y’know, GET me. Like coming home.

    Environment Agency, you had me at “Your job is to inform, not to impress”.

    Sigh, I’m off to daydream about my new crush.

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