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I have always been puzzled by this, even when reading endless information about it on the internet.

Why exactly is it called that, and what's the purpose? That's like saying, "No, you're not a writer on the topic of cars; you're a car copywriter." What is the difference and why can't just "writer" be used? What's the benefit?

For example, a copywriter can claim to create web content, but any writer can do that and many do.

I'll just quote from Wikipedia out of confusion:

Copywriters (known as continuity writers in broadcasting) are used to help create direct mail pieces

So they are synonymous with "advertisers."

online ads, e-mail and other Internet content

Encompassing anything between writing, designing, and advertising; they are like all three of those.

Why use the word "copywriter" then? Doesn't old-fashioned "writer" cover everything and then some?

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  • 1
    A writer who writes novels is a novelist, a writer who writes poetry is a poet, a writer who writes plays is a playwright - and a writer who writes copy is a copywriter. Why should only he not have his own name? And no, not every writer can write everything. I'm completely incapable of writing anything but the most plain and uninspired copy. I also cannot write plays or technical documentation.
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:10

6 Answers 6

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There are different kinds of writing. Writing for business (formal, industry jargon) is not like writing fiction (establishing a world, creating characters) which is not like writing advertising copy (short, compelling, call to action).

Copywriters have to learn how to write something which fits in a specified (usually small) space. It has to be memorable but contain certain important items (name, price, legal disclaimers). It has to encourage people to do something (click, call, buy).

It's a skill. Not everyone can do it.

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I understand your confusion, and likely frustration. As some of the answers here indicate, the terms "copy" and "copywriter" are used in a wide variety of environments, and the usage is not always logical.

For decades, I've been a copywriter in the field of Marketing Communications. I would describe it as any writing that is done for commercial purposes, but where the writing itself is not what is being sold. For example, an ad, brochure, website, social media post, blurb on a book jacket, commercial, billboard, etc., all include copy.

The marketing aspect is the unifying factor. "Copy" is also what a newspaper reporter hands to his or her editor. Yet, that person is not called a copywriter. In such cases, a modifier might be assumed, such as "editorial copy." In the case of commercial social media (e.g., Facebook, blog posts, etc.), we tend to call it "content," and the writer might be called its "author," "writer," or even (ugh!) "content creator," but the writer is often by trade a copywriter. And if the piece is shorter than what might be called an "article," the content can be considered "copy."

I would strongly disagree that copywriting is defined as the writing of "puff pieces." In fact, any copywriter worth his or her salt understands that "puffery" -- selling with unsupported superlatives or unsupportable product claims (e.g., "This is the world's best soap!") -- is to be avoided except as parody. Good copywriting involves many of the principles of good salesmanship, and among them is the defining and clear presentation of "reasons why." Furthermore, as with personal selling, if the writing doesn't speak to the needs and interests of the reader/viewer/listener (which may be practical, or emotional, or a mix), it's still copywriting, but it's likely bad copywriting.

In fact, I prefer not to use the word "copywriting" to refer to the process. It's a bad mindset. The department or the result is "copywriting" or "copy," but the process should be thought of simply as "writing." Writing for the purpose of seeming like an ad misses the entire point of commercial or social communication.

An advertising Copywriter may also be involved in developing and conveying a product personality, marketing strategy, collaboration with an Art Director or designer (I have often contributed the visual idea, and many of my collaborators have suggested good headlines), product descriptions, and many other aspects of marketing communications.

Although the ultimate goal is to stimulate sales, the immediate goal of a copywriter's work may or may not be a direct sale. As you know, many ads and websites, etc., are part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve and support those sales. The actual purchase is often made at a later date, or at the point of sale.

A bit more from my perspective: What is copywriting?

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Robert Bly is a well-known copywriter who has written a great book on copywriting which explains the challenges quite well. Copywriting Handbook, by Robert Bly -- amazon link

Check out his web site also because it is a very good example of copywriting -- which really does mean,

"writing so people pay attention".

I'm not a copywriter but learning the techniques can help you with all of your writing. Reader's time is limited and getting their attention can be extremely difficult so learning effective ways to do so can be very valuable no matter what type of writing you do.

Yes, sometimes Copywriting means schlock, and to some people that is all it means. But if you ignore the marketing techniques which have been heaped on top of this term you may gain a lot of benefit from studying the effective ways that copywriting has been used. Robert Bly does a good job of explaining it and staying away from the schlock.

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"Copy" is one of the elements of an ad, along with the visuals, the headline, etc. The copywriter is the person who writes the copy. The word has largely given way to the equally generic "content" these days.

But the implication of copywriter is that the writer is not necessarily the prime creative force on the project. In a novel, the writer is the prime, indeed, only, creative force on the project. In a movie, the director, not the screenwriter, is generally the prime creative force. In advertizing, many people may contribute to the development of the concepts that go into an ad campaign. The copywriter could end up being the creative lead on some projects, but they could also just be providing copy to flesh out someone else's idea.

I'm not sure if this is a universal or not, but it does seem like that when the writer is the prime creative force they are just "the writer" but when they are not, they are qualified in some way: copywriter, screenwriter, technical writer, etc.

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  • Ah, yes. There are now "content providers." In the case of screenwriters, I would differentiate between someone who proposes an original screenplay with heretofore unknown location and characters, and someone who provides an episode for an existing serial with established characters and location. The latter is more like a copywriter. Likewise, in the technical area, there is a difference between someone (copywriter) who describes a technology within the limits imposed by an employer who is marketing that technology, and someone who writes an independent book on private initiative.
    – user23046
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 2:02
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I would put it this way: Writing "copy" means that someone else (employer or client) provides you with specifications regarding what is to be written. For example: It is about product X. It is targeted to audience Y. It will appear in publications (print or online) A, B, and C. It must be between 100 and 300 words in length, and will co-ordinate with image I.

Now, that's for an advertisement, but not all "copy" is for ads. Some technical documentation has "copy," where anonymous users (selected for this purpose) describe how to use the product.

Newspapers may contain a certain amount of "copy," because articles must sometimes be extended to fill a pre-determined space. For example, if you read an article about baseball team B getting a new manager, and there's a paragraph telling you that team B was founded in 1928 and used to be called by some other name, in an era when the bases were stuffed with horsehair, that's probably "copy." The information about the manager wasn't quite long enough to fill the allotted space.

I have no doubt that much fiction, particularly by the kind of famous person whose books automatically sell, contains "copy" or re-written versions of it.

The essential point is that someone else provides the specifications.

Some who use this forum do elaborate world-building, it seems. I have no doubt that "copy" could be used for the actual novel, once the world was built. Case in point: Have a look at the writings of some authors who build upon the Chthulhu mythos. Seems to me that a considerable portion of their writings merely repeat what a person familiar with the mythos would already know. But it makes the stories longer.

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Copywriting Persuades People to Take Action in the Real World.

The action may be buying something, or contributing to a charity, or calling or writing their congressman, or going out to vote for somebody, or scheduling an appointment for cancer or diabetes screening, or reading to their kids. It is an advertisement of some sort that contains (usually at the end) a "call to action"; the most basic one being "Call Right Now!" followed by a phone number, or "Click Here!".

I have written advertisements for five companies I have been a partner in, and for my university.

"Copywriting" originated in 1911 in the newspaper business, when "copy" was slang for "text to be copied". For some reason this was limited to text in advertisements.

It is still only applied to advertisements, but these can be advertisements in newspapers, magazines, fliers, billboards, direct mail, press releases, and to some extent its principles are applied to radio and TV advertising, with a crossover into scriptwriting for voice/film actors.

It is not "puffery", it should not be lies, but it should be persuasive, and it has become its own art form, from first word to last. 99% of advertising is ignored, and there are principles (backed up by extensive science) in getting somebody's attention quickly, using the headline and opening lines, and sustaining that attention while they read. Sometimes these are counter-intuitive, and they can often result in writing you would not put in any fiction, but they do work.

I once rewrote a brochure for a company that I worked for, one they had been handing out at trade shows for four years, that got them very few call backs; they'd hand out 300 at a show, and get one or two calls. I did not lie once in that brochure, I did not mislead, I just focused on the principles of copywriting, explained twice as much about our product, focused on the customer, answered the questions I guessed they would ask, and in the first trade show where my new brochure was used we handed out 300, and got fifteen callbacks on it. Same performance in the next, and the next, and even though I don't work there anymore, they are using the same brochure eight years later.

Copywriting also has form restrictions; instead of a number of words you can write, you have a physical space you have to fill. It can be an oddly shaped space, these days, a curved space around a photograph or illustration, for example. You can sometimes adjust kerning (space between letters), font and fontsize, and word spacing. You can choose to box, star or color text for emphasis.

Although it is not always true, quite often the copywriter is also the ad designer, directing the production of the art, or choosing what should be illustrated. That was the case for me when I worked, I decided what to write about, and I consulted with contract graphic artists (and in one case with a professional photographer, in another case for radio with a contract musician) to produce the visuals around the text (or sound around the script).

Unlike Fiction, or most Non-Fiction (like biography, or textbooks, or history) the point of copywriting is to persuade somebody to do something, to sell them on an idea IRL.

Whether ads lie depends on the people producing them, and if they are willing to be dishonest to make money. I see a lot of ads that lie. I am not willing to be dishonest for money, and not one of the ads I wrote lied to customers. In my opinion, the job of the ad is to grab the interest of the small percentage of people that actually DO need or actually WOULD enjoy what I am selling, and not lose their interest, and tell them enough about it to persuade them to take the action of pursuing it. Without lying or disappointing them. A good ad connects a provider and consumer for a win-win transaction, with neither side regretting making that transaction.

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