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Principles of online style

March 2008

Developed by the Style Working Party under the auspices of the Learning Material Design Sub committee (LMDS) of the Information and Learning Systems Committee (ILSC)

 Note: the Principles of Online Style provide a theoretical background to the Online Style Guide.

 Feedback to Stephen Relf, CELT.

This page is also reproduced as a PDF


Writing and style for education



Use of headings





This Style Guide is a set of guidelines to assist academic and administrative staff develop and design educational materials that are consistent and professional in appearance. The introduction of CSU Interact increases the options available for pedagogic communication between staff and students, and amongst students. CSU Interact has also bought with it the ability for academic staff to write and design their own learning and teaching materials.

The style guide has four objectives:

CSU Interact

CSU Interact is designed to provide an online, scholarly environment for academic research, learning, teaching and professional development. This environment has been designed with the following characteristics:

Learning and teaching

For learning and teaching purposes, CSU Interact is an Online Learning Environment that enables the implementation of Flexible Learning through the provision of existing CSU applications such as the Forums, as well as a collection of new learning and teaching tools within one environment.


Writing and style for education

Writing and the style guides for educational and online uses are different from the normal standards of the publishing industry. Educational reading is slower than recreational reading (Lockwood, 2005), as a result the design of educational study materials is more open to facilitate the non-continuous reading whereby students read and leave the text to consult other resources such as a textbook or laboratory equipment, then return to the study material to continue reading (Hartley, 1987 and Misanchuk, 1992). The need for an open design style is further highlighted when the study materials are online because of the inherently dense nature of academic learning resources, the visual nature of online texts (Kress, 2003), and the potential for access to multiple sites directed from CSU learning resources.

Online readability practices are different. Online readers scan and browse rather than read in-depth (Nielsen, 2007). These practices then inform the style to be adopted for the design of online study materials. Readability and accessibility issues guide the principles of the Style Guide.



There are general principles for writing that apply across the educational media used within CSU. In print, online in Interact and in multimedia, there are traditions of writing instructional text that are compatible with research into the presentation of educational information. Writing and designing educational resources have similar principles to the recommendation of writing online. These principles are described in the 'Writing' section below.



Writing educational material has been a version of the essayist tradition of academia (Green, 2001). This is a process of continuous writing, development of an argument, canvassing options and arriving at a conclusion. This approach had been challenged by the use of instructional text in which 'the kind of writing is quite different from anything most teachers have done previously' (Rowntree, 1986, p. 81). Rowntree's organisational metaphor for writing instructional text was the 'tutorial-in-print' – 'imagine that you are tutoring one individual learner' (1986, p. 82 emphasis in original). In this form of writing Rowntree recommended that writing instructional texts should be a 'friendly and informal' type of writing using personal pronouns, contractions, and simple text. The structure of the text was that the writing was to:

Online writing also requires a different approach to writing from the essayist tradition. In a similar disjunction from academic writing, Nielsen (1996) recommended an inverted pyramid style of writing 'starting with the conclusion' rather than the traditional pyramid of the essayist tradition 'starting with the foundation and gradually building to the conclusion'. Nielsen's recommendation is that writing be 'scannable' because his studies reveal that readers of web pages do not read as such but rather they scan text. As a result Nielsen recommends that:

'Web pages have to employ scannable text, using

There are great similarities between Rowntree's and Nielsen's approaches to writing despite the independence of their scholarship and the difference of the media in which to write.

However because this is a new area of usage, Lynch and Horton (2002) recommend that the need for flexibility is of greater importance. This applies also to the advice of breaking information in writing online into digestible 'chunks' of information. Lynch and Horton recommend that it may be best to present long passages of information on one web page consisting of multiple screens length, with adequate internal breaks and enabled by hypertextual navigation through the heading structure. As found by one academic at CSU who wrote the study guide online, it was 'a different way of writing' in which 'the argument is constructed differently' (Relf, 2007) and that chunking of information was not always possible because 'it made the information too bitty' (Jones & Relf, 2004). The principle of organisation involving long pages then is that of print textual organisation with the use of adequate headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings.


Use of headings

Headings provide the visual conceptual and hierarchical organisation of the text. Headings can prove to be useful in assisting writers plan their texts, as well as indicating the structure to readers. Complex structures such as the illustration below are difficult to follow and it is recommended that the number of the heading levels for instructional text be limited to two or at most three levels (Rowntree,1986; Hartley, 1994; and Misanchuk, 1992).



Headings provide the navigational structure of the text. In print this is a conceptual navigation, while online this is a physical as well as conceptual navigation. The navigation is provided visually with the text of headings standing out from the text in the body through the use of size, font and colour of the text and by the use of different spacing around the heading. The subtle use of space with more space above the heading than below indicates that the heading is separated from the proceeding text and relates to the text below. Because there is normally more than one paragraph in the text below a heading, the space below the heading should be the same size as the paragraph space. If colour is used for heading levels, dark shades and other attributes such as bold or italics are recommended to ensure readability so that the heading stands out (Lynch & Horton, 2002) However, it is also important to keep in mind that if students will be printing the material, black headings should be used for black and white printing.

In the online environment this hierarchical structure provides a basic structure but the application of hypertext enables more associative thinking links and the free flow of information (Lynch & Horton, 2002). More elaborate structures of sites takes advantage of the power of hypertext, though it is important that the site does not becomes a confusing labyrinth (Snyder, 1996 and Lynch & Horton, 2002). Lynch and Horton (2002) described the nature of textual structures in higher education as complex and non-linear. They compare textual structures by two axes: the user contact time with the text and the narrative structure of the text. Higher education resources tend to require lengthy contact time because of the complex nature of the text. However, the narrative structure of academic texts is less linear and suitable for hypertextual uses because of their analytical nature.



There is an experimental nature is writing academic texts for the online environment. This experimentation relates to the conversion of established typographical traditions in print to the multimodal online medium. The experimentation also relates to the change of writing styles and uses of the modes and media in the online environment by the academic writers. This style guide is an attempt to match these dimensions of experimentation through scholarship in writing study materials in print with the burgeoning practices and scholarship of writing online which stems principally from commercial and social practices.

It is expected that the Online style guide will be continually reviewed as new tools become available and as writing higher education study materials online is subject to greater research.



Green, B. 2001, English teaching, 'literacy' and the post-age: On compos(IT)ing and other new times metaphors, in P(ICT)ures of English: Teachers, learners and technology, eds. C. Durrant & C. Beavis, Wakefield Press, Kent Town South Australia, pp. 249-271.

Hartley, J. 1994, Designing instructional text, 3 rd edn, Kogan Page, London.

Jones, P. & Relf, S. 2004, Adventures in multiliteracies: Negotiating pedagogic relations in an online era, in Making spaces: Regenerating the profession, ed. S. McLeod, Proceedings of the 2004 Australian Teacher Education National Conference, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, pp. 359-367.

Kress, G. 2003, Literacy in the new media age, Routledge, London.

Lockwood, F. 2005, Estimating student workload, readability and implications for student learning, retention and progression, Paper presented at the 2005 ODLAA conference Breaking down the boundaries: A conference on the International experience in open, distance and flexible learning , University of South Australia and Charles Sturt University, Adelaide, 9-11 November.

Lynch, P. & Horton, S. 2002, Web style guide 2 nd edn, [Online, accessed 18 Dec. 2002]. URL:

Misanchuk, E. 1992, Preparing instructional text: Document deign using desktop publishing, Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs.

Nielsen, J. 1997, Be succinct (Writing for the web), Alertbox, 15 March. [Online, accessed, 21 February 1999]

Relf, S. 2007, A l(IT)eracy model of professional development for writing online educational material, in What do we know about using new technologies for learning and teaching? A ten year perspective, the 12 th Cambridge International Conference on Open and Distance Learning, 25 -28 September 2007, New Hall, Cambridge. [Online, accessed 20 Sept. 2007]. URL:

Rowntree, D. 1986, Teaching through self-instruction: A practical handbook for course developers, Kogan Page, London.

Snyder, I. 1996, Hypertext: The electronic labyrinth, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.