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How to edit web content

Are you in charge of your organisation’s web content? Having a plan can help when  you’re making the case for changing someone else’s copy.

Things you'll need

  • Access to the web
  • Your favourite editing text editing tool

Read through everything

Get to the point where you could briefly explain the piece to a friend. This should include knowing:

  • who the piece is for
  • what problem it will solve for them
  • what these people should do after reading it.

If you can’t answer those questions, have a chat with the author – sometimes an editor’s most valuable work happens off the page.

If your piece doesn’t solve a problem, then it’s probably time to think about why it needs to be published. Sometimes pieces that don’t solve problems for users have to be published...for various reasons. If that’s the case for you, find a place that fulfils that need without causing any problems. 


Find out where the piece fits into the big picture

Content doesn’t live in a vacuum. Hopefully, the piece is part of a more general campaign, supported by other types of content as well as direct messaging like email or social media. If not, then it’s best to find out early on!

  • How does this piece fit in with your organisation’s digital presence?
  • Does it complement other things?
  • Do you need to do add links between this piece and existing ones?

This could be a great time to start thinking about an audit...


Re-arrange the piece for the user

The answers to your questions from step 1 should be at the top of your piece. It can be helpful to compound these into a single question:

What’s in this piece for me, and what should I do now?

Get this into your first 50 words. If you can get it into your first 20-30 words, even better.

That’s not the way we’re taught to write at school or university – conclusions normally come at the end. Things are different on the web because your audience is:

  • not captive
  • there to solve a problem.

Edit for structure

Follow the same advice as you would if you were writing for the web – split the document up using paragraphs, lists and properly formatted subheadings. Keep sentences short.

Make sure you know about how to write accessible web content. People will be looking at your page on a variety of devices (tablets, mobiles etc), with different access technology (screen readers, screen magnification) or with other access needs. So it the way you write links or headings will make a big difference to their experience.

Also think about how to be persuasive online. Structure your content in a way that has the most impact and drives action or donations.


Simplify the language where you can

Easier said than done. When we learn to write, we are rewarded for complexity. On the web, users reward us for simplicity.

This doesn’t mean 'dumbing down' your the message in a piece, but it does mean communicating it  in the simplest possible language.

The Plain English Campaign has some great free guides. Their ‘Dictionary of alternative words’ is particularly good.

Hopefully, your organisation has a recently-updated style guide which also promotes the use of easy to understand language. If it does, use it. If it doesn’t, steal the Guardian’s style guide. Consistent tone and style is important - they help to create trust, and people will notice when it’s not there. 


Proof the piece

When you’ve been working on a piece, it’s harder to see what is on the page, rather than what you intended to be on the page. In an ideal world, different people would be responsible for writing, editing and proofing.

If you are responsible for editing and proofing, don’t blur the lines between the two tasks. Set aside some time, ideally after you’ve slept on it, to proof the piece.

There are lots of tips to help people with proofing – using a ruler to go line by line, as well as going through your text backwards, can be particularly helpful.


Plan for the future

The people that you work with will very keen to publish and promote content, less so on how to archive it.

The way you will handle a piece of content on the date of publication should (probably) be different to how it will sit 18 months from now. It’s best to deal with this at the point of publication. Scribd can be a great place to store documents for the historical record, and SlideShare is good for presentations.

Sometimes, archiving isn’t important – ‘date stamped’ content which sinks into a natural archive, eg blog posts or news items, take care of themselves. Other content types (fundraising promotion, publications, reports) will require a strategy.

You need a system to manage this. If you’re lucky, this will be built into the tools you use to generate content and you can schedule changes at the point of publication. If not, you’ll have to create your own system. It doesn’t matter if your system is a spreadsheet, outlook reminders or made from spit and string. If you’re not a one-person-band it’s probably best if you use a tool that can be shared.


Page last edited Aug 25, 2017 History

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