When people unfamiliar with business jargon ask what I do for a living and I reply that I'm a copywriter, I get some quizzical looks. Some smile politely and change the subject. Others think I'm saying "copyrighter" and start asking questions about fair use and intellectual property laws.
To clear up the confusion, this post is a brief introduction to the copywriting field, for those who are curious. If nothing else, I hope it will show that the hair-pulling struggle over finding precisely the right idea, sentence structure, word, or comma placement can take place in an office cubicle as easily as in the creative writer's studio.
Part of the confusion, I think, lies in the term copy, which brings to mind imitation, duplication, and even dishonesty or fakery (as in "Don't copy from your neighbor's test" or "The precious emerald turned out to be a worthless copy.") These connotations are not exactly self-esteem-building for a person who makes her living writing copy!
So I turned to my trusty Webster's to find these more pertinent definitions for copy: "Matter to be set, especially for printing" and "Text, especially of an advertisement." That's more like it! That's the type of copy that concerns a copywriter. It's also the root word of "copyeditor," that poor harried soul responsible for correcting typographical errors in typeset copy before it hits the printing press and gets distributed to the masses.
If you've ever read a magazine ad, the back of a cereal box, the jacket of a book, a description in a catalog, or a fundraising appeal from a charitable organization, you've seen copywriting at work. If you watch the series Mad Men (set in a New York advertising agency) or are old enough to remember the character Darrin Stevens on Bewitched, you've seen copywriters in action: people tasked with putting persuasive words together to sell or promote something. If the phrases "Just do it," "Where's the beef," "It's the real thing," and "Because I'm worth it" bring certain brands to mind, then some copywriter has done his or her job.
From the field of advertising and branding, the term "copywriting" has expanded to cover many different aspects of business writing, from websites and newsletters to telemarketer scripts to speeches given by the CEO. In short, "copywriter" means "business writer," although it can also apply to nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, and much more.
How does copywriting differ from so-called "creative" writing? (I would argue that good copywriting is creative, too!) Here are just a few ways:
*Copywriting is persuasive, with the goal of inspiring readers to take some sort of action: to buy a product or service, give a donation, support a cause, change their point of view on an issue, etc. Copywriting is not done merely to entertain or elicit an emotion, although good copywriting will do both.
*Copywriting is a business service for business professionals. There are deadlines to meet and clients to please, and the copywriter's desire for creative expression takes a distant backseat to the business goals of the client. Copywriters on deadline cannot wait for the muse to inspire them in order to start producing.
*The copywriter remains anonymous. There are no bylines, author bios, or public accolades. Copywriting is judged by two criteria: (1) did it accomplish what it was supposed to (that is, were readers persuaded to take an action) and (2) above all, is the client happy? If you want to become famous as a writer, copywriting is probably not the way to do it. However, it can be very satisfying and rewarding, which is why I enjoy doing it.
In future posts I'll address copywriting in more detail, answering questions such as "Who hires copywriters?" and "What's a copywriter's typical day like?" Feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I'll try to address them. For now, just know that if you have a knack for writing strong, clear, persuasive copy, and if writing for commercial purposes interests you, and if it wouldn't bother you to be away from the public eye, then you may have a bright future as a copywriter.