Lessons from the new Australian Government Style Manual

The Digital Transformation Agency is developing the next edition of the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (Style Manual). This publication has been around since 1966 and will be finalised later this year with a digital-first approach. Currently, the publication is on a public Beta website.

Job applicants can benefit from familiarity with this manual. Firstly, because the manual provides useful guidance on content and structure, and secondly, because selection panels may judge writing ability based on an application. If it is poorly written and structured, then you may miss out on being short listed.

The manual alerts us to some key points about people’s approach to reading content.

  • People pay attention to content only for as long as they need to. They are not likely to read everything.
  • People will take seconds to decide from the page title and first few headings if the content is relevant.
  • Once people are on a page, they might scan only a fifth of the content before deciding whether to read in detail.

While how people read printed material is not the same as online material, keep in mind that your application could be read on a screen. The above points, combined with research on what resume readers do, suggest that your application and resume may not receive the devoted attention you would like. So the first content read must grab a reader’s attention.

The manual advises writing in clear, plain language, using short sentences written in active voice. Active voice makes clear who is doing what. Failure to make this clear, particularly if you, the applicant, is the person doing the action, will reduce the effectiveness of an application.

An important piece of advice is to “make each word work for its place in the content”. This means removing unnecessary words, ones that have no content, are unconvincing, or reduce readability.

Examples include changing ‘I was required to write a brief’ to ‘I wrote a brief’, and ‘I was able to prepare a report’ to ‘I prepared a report’. Cliches like ‘going forward’ can also be eliminated, as can most adverbs and adjectives, such as ‘dynamic, ‘innovative’ ‘successfully’, ‘effectively’.

The Style Manual includes a useful section on inclusive language, covering:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Age diversity
  • Cultural and linguistic diversity
  • Gender and sexual diversity
  • People with disability.

If an applicant is writing about skills or experience where inclusive language is relevant, it would be wise to consult these sections.

The section on structure types is also useful for applicants. The inverted pyramid is useful for writing pitches because it focuses on writing details in order, from the most to the least important, and starting with what the reader most needs to know. The temptation is to build up to the most important information, but given the way people skim documents, this approach will not serve the applicant well.

Material on the sequential structure is useful for writing about specific examples that demonstrate an applicant’s skills. This structure is used to explain steps taken, a process, or order of events, and helps a reader follow and understand the relationships between items. When using the STAR (situation, task, action, result) or CAR (context, action, result) structure, applicants can confuse a reader by either not having the sequence in a logical order, or leaving gaps in the steps.

Other advice that is worth noting is to check spelling is correct, and that sentences are grammatically correct.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.