What is copywriting?

by Tom Albrighton 10 September 2009 Copywriting

There are probably as many definitions of copywriting as there are copywriters. My own definition of copywriting is as follows:

Copywriting is the optimum use of language to promote or persuade.

Now, let me unpack the elements of this definition.

First, copywriting is all about finding the optimum way to communicate. The professional copywriter is always looking for the right answer: the right length of copy, the right structure, the right tone, the right choice of words. Diligent copywriters are convinced that there is a single best solution, and they’re driven to find it. Like Coleridge, they want to achieve ‘the best words in the best order’.

What is copywriting?

What is copywriting?

Next, use indicates that copywriting is a ‘useful art’: a creative activity with a practical purpose. In contrast to ‘pure’ creative writing – writing principally to entertain, or provoke thought – copywriting is all about achieving a particular outcome in the real world. We might enjoy reading (or writing) great copy, but its raison d’être is to do a job. The value of copywriting is the extent to which it succeeds in its purpose.

Language is the raw material of the copywriter. Notice that I didn’t say ‘writing’ – copywriting can include any carefully chosen language, including broadcast media or one-to-one communications like telephone scripts. It may also include visual language as well as verbal: the copywriter will often want to influence context and presentation (typography, design, imagery) to heighten the impact of their copy. Because the medium is the message.

Most copywriting exists in order to promote something: products or services mainly, but also new ideas (as in rebranding exercises) or points of view (as in political marketing). The copywriter’s goal is to communicate the strengths, advantages or benefits of whatever they are promoting so their audience buys into them – whether literally or metaphorically. (Promotional copywriting’s evil twin, ‘knocking copy’, aims to denigrate a rival product, service or idea.)

Persuasion means getting people to think, feel or act in a certain way. Effective copywriting leads the audience by the hand across the stepping-stones of reading, thinking, feeling and acting – in that order. It’s all about using intangible tools – words and thoughts – to achieve an outcome in the real world. And this, ultimately, is the fascination of copywriting: making things happen with something as insubstantial as words on a page.