Contrary to popular belief, the life of a freelance copywriter is not always filled with Netflix or spontaneous brunch dates. As I’ve said before, copywriting is 99% staring out windows, and 1% flashes of brilliance. Which is my way of saying that I spend a lot of time up in my head, sorting through a filing cabinet of thoughts. But it discredits the writing process, because I do a lot more than watching clouds roll across the sky.
So I wanted to write this post, because being a copywriter seems to be somewhat of an elusive description. Perhaps it’s the confusing etymology – if ‘copy’ means to replicate, then doesn’t ‘copywriting’ translate into a counterfeit activity?
Let me break it down for you.
The history of the word ‘copywriter’
I’m no historian, but through turning to the oracle of our times – Google – I’ve discovered a few variations of the history of the word ‘copywriter’.
1. The most common one comes from around the same time the Gutenberg Press was created, which was the first machine capable of producing mass-printed text. Lead type was wedged into wooden trays, and an impression marked on paper. Obviously, no backspace existed back then, so multiple copies might need to be printed first to check for errors. As a result, this dialogue became common:
“There are 75 spelling mistakes in this copy. Who wrote this copy?!"
"Putney did. Let’s send him to the gallows!"
2. Around the 1300s, the word ‘copy’ entered the English language to refer to a written account of events.
3. According to John Ayto, author of Dictionary of Word Origins, copy comes from the latin ‘copia’, which translates into ‘abundance’. Which, as you might notice, is a strange etymology. So how did a Latin word for abundance give English a word for a written account?
In his book, Ayto explains that the Latin word had a secondary meaning, ‘right’ or ‘power’, which, in his words, “led to its application to ‘right of reproduction’ and ultimately to simply ‘reproduction.’ ”
However, the term ‘copy’ wasn’t used in advertising context until the early 20th Century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Are copy and content the same thing?
Yes, and no. ‘Copy’ generally refers to written advertisements, and ‘content’ can refer to images and text. When looking for a writer, agencies and businesses will often look for a ‘content writer’. But if you are a copywriter, more often than not, you might also refer to yourself as a content writer. I use the same terms interchangeability, but I favour the term copywriter, as it has a higher search volume on Google. It’s what people are looking for, so I use it.
What does a copywriter do?
A copywriter, or a content writer, essentially, strings words together into coherent sentences in order to communicate a message, and inspire action.
As my tag line says, "What you say is just as important as what you sell".
In the realm of copywriting and content, words sell.
If we were Peggy Olsen and living in the 60s, we as copywriters – or content writers – would be working alongside art directors, writing text for printed advertisement and scripts for broadcast advertisements. Today, a copywriter’s role is a lot more complex.
With the printing industry rapidly transforming – and NOT dying! – this means copywriters need a whole new bag of tricks.
But firstly, why do we need good WRITTEN content? I know what you're thinking: "People don't read, Camilla! HAHAHAHAHA. People watch cat videos and use Instagram and emojis. Reading is for fancy pants hipsters who carry around Proust and read in parks."
That, my friend, is where you're wrong.
So you understand that people want good content if they're going to invest in your business, but surely the average person can harness the English language to create good content, correct? Can't you just get a receptionist to do it? Yes, you can. But is your receptionist a skilled writer? Can she make people open their wallets with just a few of the right words? These are all serious questions to consider when you're weighing up the pros and cons of outsourcing to a professional, versus using someone on your team.
Allow me to illustrate.
As you can see, copywriting requires far more than a grasp of basic spelling and grammar. Of course, there are those special individuals who possess a natural flair for communication. But hiring someone who's professionally trained, and has delivered qualifiable results for others, will deliver far more value for your business than a hobbyist writer.