Want to become a great charity copywriter? This guide covers the ins and outs of website copy writing: all the practicalities involved in getting words onto your charity website.
If you need help defining your mission, audience, proposition, etc then also check out our guide on how to create a communication plan. If you are thinking about sitemaps and user journeys then try our guide to website content strategy (with a free content strategy template).
In this guide, you’ll get lots of practical tips about writing great content for your charity’s website across the following three chapters.
1. Keep it brief
Charity copywriting: work on a need to know basis
Focus on what your reader needs to know. Don’t add info just because you have it. We recommend allocating one page per issue or question. If you need to show lots of separate points on a single page it is often best to summarise them with short headings and provide links through to more information on subpages.
A great example of a single issue page that resists the temptation to say everything is Macmillan’s ‘What is cancer’ page. This is obviously a complex topic but they keep the page short and easy to understand. How do your pages compare with this one?
Paragraph length is an area where copywriting for the web is different from other forms of writing. If you are proficient at other types of writing this can be a difficult adjustment.
The concept of one idea per paragraph is especially important on the web. Break more complex ideas into smaller chunks that stand alone as a paragraph. Ask yourself what your user really needs to know and cut the rest. A good rule of thumb is that a paragraph should have between 1 and 3 sentences.
This guidance applies to informational content but also to journalistic or persuasive content.
Avoid very long sentences and vary sentence length
Now you know that we promote short pages and short paragraphs you won’t be surprised to hear that we also recommend short sentences. However, in this area it’s not as simple as ‘short is always better’. Varying sentence length is a powerful communication technique that can be used to summarise information and provoke action. Short sentences add power when they contrast with longer sentences. Use them intentionally!
2. Write clearly and anticipate action
Use strong titles
A good page title will summarise the entire page including the charity’s message and the desired action. You can also use strong titles to break down a longer page into sections. This is a great page title example from Oxfam:
Front load your main points
Assume readers won’t read your entire page. Make sure that your key points are in the first two paragraphs, and that the most important information can be deduced from your sub-headings, titles and bullet points.
This ‘what you can do’ page from NSPCC is a great example. The single paragraph summary and informative titles communicate the key messages quickly. The reader understands where to go next without relying on the text below the headings or the images (though both add context and depth).
Active vs passive voice
If you favour the active voice your content will be easier to understand. This is a powerful copywriting technique.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of these terms before. They are simply terms that help you understand alternative methods of sentence construction. To know whether you are writing in the active or passive voice, first identify the subject of the sentence. The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something.
Next, decide if the subject is doing the action or being acted upon. With an active voice the subject is doing the action; with a passive voice the subject is being acted on. Here are some examples:
Passive: Our work (subject) is sustained (action) by our members. vs Active: The money (subject) given (action) by you changes lives.
Passive: Our members (subject) sustain (action) our work. vs Active: Your donation (subject) changes (action) lives.
The web is rarely the place for flowery language. Most charities have a broad audience who are coming to them for information or inspiration rather than stimulating language. Just because you understand the word doesn’t mean your audience will!
This readability tool runs a series of automated tests on your page. You can use this as an objective measure of your writing’s accessibility.
Calls to action
Calls to action are often neglected when charities write for the web. Why? Because writing good content is hard enough and it is easy, once you’ve communicated our point, to leave it at that.
However, neglecting calls to action runs the risk of missing a huge opportunity afforded by your website. In many other mediums, from leaflets to tube posters, there is no guarantee that the reader has the means at their disposal to respond immediately. But when you are writing a web page you have an unrivalled opportunity to anticipate and control the user’s next action.
No matter what content you are writing, always consider the next action. There will always be a next action, even if it’s closing the browser. This should be at the front of your mind.
Try to avoid these mistakes:
Mistake #1 = dead-end pages
Avoid pages that offer no clear direction to subsequent pages.
Mistake #2 = option overload
Avoid pages that provide an overwhelming range of options.
Simply forcing yourself to think through your desired or anticipated next steps for the user is normally enough to lead you to a small and specific selection of actions. By highlighting these next steps clearly you will make your charity website dramatically more user-friendly.
This page on exercise from Parkinsons UK is a good example, offering the user a small range of relevant next steps.
3. Format for easier reading
Understand semantic formatting
If you are not familiar with writing for the web then you may think of formatting as primarily an aesthetic endeavour (i.e. how things look). When writing for the web it is important to start thinking of formatting as primarily a semantic endeavour (i.e. what things mean).
Aesthetic: Headings should be big. vs Semantic: Headings should logically divide and describe the content.
Aesthetic: My page should be colourful to keep it interesting. vs Semantic: I should have a strong and consistent colour for all of my links so that users know which areas of the page are clickable.
Aesthetic: Long chunks of unformatted text are boring. vs Semantic: Long chunks of unformatted text are difficult to scan quickly and do not prioritise the key points.
Headings should support a logical structure
Website formatting conventions rely heavily on heading levels. The lower the number next to the heading the more important it is. For example, your page title is your heading 1 or ‘H1’ and the next level of headings you use to divide your content into sections are each heading 2 or ‘H2’.
Headings are particularly important to search engines. Using keywords in your headings will increase your visibility in search engine results when people search for those keywords. It is therefore important to use keywords in your headings where possible. Use H2’s to support your main points, and use H3-H5 only where necessary on longer pieces of content (like this guide). There should only be one H1 per page, (the page Title) so never use H1s in the main text body.
For more information specifically on search engine optimisation, check out our guide on that subject.
Headings should be informative
Headings and subheadings are a key opportunity to get your message across and encourage people to read further. Subheadings should be used wherever possible.
The ideal length for the page title is anywhere between 30-60 characters. Anything longer than this will be cropped in search engine results, so ensure that if you do write longer page titles they still make sense when cropped to the first 60 characters. Don’t be afraid of long subtitles either, though these will often be shorter than the page title.
Use other formatting techniques sparingly and consistently
Bold should be used to add emphasis to one or two particularly important words in your content, for example, a term you are defining.
Italic is a subtler way to add emphasis to your text but be aware that it can make text hard to read on many digital displays. Used carefully, italic can helpfully distinguish quotes or captions.
Never use underline. On some websites, the stylesheet may automatically add an underline to link text but you should never add this manually because it can give users the impression the underlined text should be a link.
Make sure any bullet points are in the same tense and verb form, with any common information in the preceding sentence.
Our members receive:
- Free training
- Access to resources
- Receive free training
- Receive access to resources
Try to avoid writing out the full URL and instead add meaningful link text and configure this text to point to the URL. Where possible the link text you add should maintain the natural flow of the text. An exception to this guidance is where, at the end of the content or in particular areas, you list out a range of actions for the user.
Once you’ve made good progress on your written copy you may wish to improve other areas of your online communications. Our resources library contains a wide range of free resources for charities and membership organisations.