Marketing & communications

Charity web writing: six steps to more powerful copy

Start by assuming no one wants to read anything you write

Step one: assume no one wants to read what you’re writing

Unless your charity is very unusual, your supporter base will be split between a small group of very active supporters and a much bigger group of supporters who like what you do but definitely don’t see you as central to their lives.

Getting that second group to listen is hard enough – and you already have a relationship with them. Reaching new audiences is harder still. And even your most engaged supporters will have a lot on their minds other than you.

So start by assuming no one wants to read anything you write. Imagine your readers are busy. And distracted. And tired. And want to watch Bake Off.

It might not be the most inspiring starting point, but it’ll definitely help you to make sure every word counts.

Step two: think content strategy before content

Before you write anything, you need to understand why you’re writing it. And to do that, you need a content strategy.

It doesn’t have to be a huge document and the process to get it written and agreed shouldn’t be a long or painful one.

But an effective content strategy helps to ensure you’re producing relevant and engaging content that brings alive your charity’s goals. It helps to make sure your messaging is consistent too. And it’s a very handy guide for everyone who produces content for you.

There are hundreds of templates and how to guides online, so head to Google, find one that works for your organisation and get the right people together to start shaping your content strategy.

 Step three: know your objective

At the first writing agency I worked for, I was introduced to a very handy phrase I’ve used ever since:

‘I want [my reader] to know that [….] so that […]’

Fill in those three sets of square brackets and you should have a simple, effective objective to help shape whatever you’re writing – from a tweet to a white paper.

The key thing once you’ve got it is to flip your objective into an audience-focused message. Why should your readers actually care about what you want to tell them? Focus on that – and write from that perspective.

Step four: don’t confuse a Word doc with a webpage

You know that pristine white page you use to write web copy? That has about as much in common with a webpage as a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll has with a frenzied lunch break run down Oxford Street.

A word doc that was really like a webpage would have images and adverts and links all around it. It might play music. And dozens of other word docs would be tempting you to look at them as well.

Try and bear that in mind, because a Word doc can make you forget how people will read what you write.

One tip that can help? Set up Word templates with big, block cap words around a text area shaped like a mobile or tablet screen. It’s unsettling and unpleasant, which is just what you need.

Step five: use Google Adwords to supercharge your headings

Google’s AdWords software includes a very handy keyword planner that gives you lots of useful information about the keywords and phrases that people are actually searching for.

So rather than relying on instinct, get familiar with Adwords (all you need is a Google account), find the words people are using and put them upfront in your headings. It’s a simple way to help improve your search engine rankings.

 Step six: think like George Orwell

When your planning is done and you’re ready to write, try and follow George Orwell’s rules of writing, which are very easy to find online.

The crux of his argument? Keep words short and simple. Edit everything you can. Avoid clichés and jargon. And don’t say anything you don’t need to.

It’s the perfect guide to web writing, just written decades before the web was actually invented.

Matt is a freelance copywriter for charities including Oxfam, Mind, Teenage Cancer Trust, CLIC Sargent, Amnesty International and MQ: Transforming Mental Health. His new website is launching at later this year. Hopefully.