The types of copywriter and copywriting

by Tom Albrighton 4 October 2010 Copywriting

If you’re thinking of using a copywriter (or becoming one), it’s important to realise that there is more than one type of copywriting and more than one type of copywriter.

Different writing projects require different skills, and writers evolve different skillsets, whether deliberately or simply as the natural result of their working experience. So the terms ‘copywriting’ and ‘copywriter’, although simple-sounding, actually encompass a range of specialisations and capabilities. This post lists some of the most common types of copywriting and copywriters.

Note that some of these copywriting disciplines have parallel job titles/descriptions, and others don’t. For example, while ‘SEO copywriter’ is now a recognised job title, I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as a ‘long-copy copywriter’. Also, be aware that some of these labels are flexible – while there are different strands within copywriting, the distinctions between them aren’t always so clear-cut as my headings imply, and people may use these terms in different ways.

The freelance copywriter

The freelance copywriter writes in any medium directly for clients, usually operating as a sole trader or one-person company.

Businesses and organisations need a broad range of things written: websites, brochures, case studies, product descriptions, user manuals, press releases, presentations, internal documents and more. While many will simply use internal resource to get the writing done, many turn to a freelance copywriter to help them out.

Freelance copywriting is usually managed on an ad hoc, job-by-job basis, although some clients do strike retainer arrangements or set up longer contracts with freelances. Typically, the freelancer provides a price or proposal, does the work, revises the copy in response to feedback, and submits their invoice on approval.

Freelance copywriting typically requires ‘broad but shallow’ copywriting skills. For example, in the course of writing a corporate website, the copywriter might find themselves writing long copy for information pages, snappy selling copy for high-profile pages and journalistic copy for news pages. At the same time, they might throw in a company tagline and perhaps name a product range or two – in some cases, without even being asked, since the client may not have realised that they even need these things.

As a result of working for many different clients, the freelance copywriter also tends to develop broad but shallow knowledge of different business sectors, allowing them to get a handle on new clients’ requirements very quickly. This is one area where older freelancers can consistently outdo their younger counterparts – experience cannot be faked, nor bought.

Conversely, some freelances specialise in writing for a particular industry or sector – pharmaceuticals, charity and so on. This may be because they previously held a salaried position in that sector. It may be a deliberate choice, or it may just emerge as a result of the jobs and referrals that come along.

Since the freelance copywriter deals directly with clients who may have little or no marketing experience, they also need some skills in project management, consultancy and diplomacy. Like business knowledge, these skills take time to acquire.

Freelance copywriters come from a range of backgrounds. Some are ex-agency copywriters who wanted a change of lifestyle; some have experience in related industries such as marketing, journalism or publishing; some are just people with a talent for writing who have decided to give freelancing a go.

The agency copywriter

Agency copywriters work in-house for graphic design studios, full-service marketing agencies, digital agencies, search agencies, PR agencies and copywriting agencies, where they produce text to order for the agency’s clients. They’ll usually be briefed by an account handler, or perhaps a designer, and will produce whatever the client requires. In some cases, they may deal with the client directly. 

While freelance copywriters spend a lot of time on the nuts and bolts of their business – marketing, accounts, new business – the agency copywriter will do hands-on writing for the bulk of their day. Some writers prefer this, seeing it as their true vocation, while others might worry about the pressure of delivering creative ideas and high-quality content under the pressure of the clock – and the management.

Agency copywriters, particularly those who have worked in London or another media hub, will typically be able to show some impressive national or multinational brands on their cv. However, big companies require a range of content types, and the projects involved may not have been high-profile marketing campaigns. Also, the agency copywriter is given his clients and projects on a plate, while the freelancer has to go out and close deals directly with real-world companies, all on their own. Arguably, this gives the freelancer a better grasp of commercial realities. 

The in-house copywriter

In-house copywriters are employed by large organisations who have their own marketing departments and need the services of a writer, or writers, full-time.

The in-house copywriter, obviously, works only for one client, which may limit their opportunities in terms of selling different products or working in a range of media. However, they may get the opportunity to develop a brand’s tone of voice in depth, and they are also likely to enjoy a productively close working relationship with their internal ‘clients’ – those who use their copy and brief them on requirements.

Advertising copywriting

This is perhaps the kind of writing that most people think of when they hear the word ‘copywriting’: writing the content of press, TV and other forms of advertising. Ad copywriting includes the creation of memorable headlines, slogans and taglines that people remember from broadcast media – but it also includes the drafting of long-copy advertisements such as sometimes appear in Sunday supplements or on underground (subway) trains.

Since slogans are such a critical part of any ad campaign, the ad copywriter will spend a long time getting them right. The words in ad slogans are probably the most time-intensive writing to be found anywhere.

In short-copy work, the actual words that finally appear in an ad may be less important than the central idea. So ad copywriters sometimes do ‘creative concepts’ or ‘copy plots’ (brief outlines of what an ad will cover) as separate tasks from determining the actual content.

Since an advert is a highly concentrated format, where words, images and design work together very closely, the ad copywriter often works with a designer or art director to develop ideas that use both verbal and visual communication.

Ad copywriters who work at the highest level need to be creative, lateral thinkers who can come up with very strong, original ideas under pressure. Further down the advertising food chain, the copywriter’s work may involve a little more pragmatism and compromise. But whoever they work for, advertising copywriters need to be able to deliver ideas and content that sell products.

Long-copy work

‘Long copy’ refers to any advertisement (or other medium) that contains a lot of copy – whatever ‘a lot’ means in context. For example, a long-copy sales letter would be several pages long, rather than just one page; a long-copy press advertisement would have several paragraphs of text rather than just one; and a long-copy website might have longer articles (1000 words and up) rather than the usual 100- or 200-word web pages.

There’s no such thing as a ‘long copy copywriter’. I’m using this heading to distinguish long-copy work from the sort of highly creative, concentrated writing that goes into writing a consumer marketing slogan – because the skills required for each are very different.

As noted, the ad copywriter is likely to be a free creative spirit who can come up with an arresting, original and memorable three-word slogan that can work across an entire campaign. But they may not be the right person to produce all the content that’s associated with it – the website, the packaging copy, the press releases and whatever else is required. Doing so requires skills in structuring and planning content, achieving a uniform tone of voice and maintaining a high linguistic standard – the key abilities of the long-copy specialist.

The long-copy copywriter is less of an artist, more of a craftsperson. Rather than leaping to peaks of creative brilliance, their work is all about sustaining the right level of quality over long wordcounts.

Copywriting for publishers

‘Copywriting for publishers’ is a bit of a misnomer, since publishers do not refer to those who produce their text as ‘copywriters’, but rather ‘authors’ or ‘journalists’. However, many copywriters have all the skills required to write for online and offline publications: researching facts and turning them into readable prose that a third party then publishes, perhaps for profit.

Writing for publishers is usually a case of working to a brief. The client will need an article or book about a particular subject and will ask you to write it, either for a fixed fee or a royalty (payment per copy sold).

One key difference between copywriting for commercial clients and writing for (say) a newspaper is the additional level of editorial control involved with publishers. While a commercial client would expect their copywriter to submit editorially accurate text (i.e. to proofread it, or have it proofread), reporters and journalists are more accustomed to having their work rigorously checked, and often rewritten wholesale, by sub-editors. Hence they can crank out the copy much more quickly, for example by dictating it over the phone (‘phoning in’ their copy).

Increasingly, however, as content moves online, publishers are also putting the burden of accuracy on their writers, as well as trusting to luck by publishing unproofed content in the knowledge they can always amend it later. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Website copywriting

Website copywriting is simply producing text for websites. However, the skills of the web copywriter don’t end at simply producing the copy. They’re likely to get involved in structuring the site, planning the user’s experience, setting tone of voice, ensuring usability and getting design and text to work together. As a result, the web copywriter needs a good working knowledge of web design and usability, and ideally technical aspects such as HTML, CSS and SEO (see below).

Although some copywriters do present themselves as specialist web writers, all they’re really saying is that they’re strong in these related skills and have experience of writing a lot of sites. The core skill of copywriting is the same regardless of the medium involved.

SEO copywriting

SEO copywriting is the creation of web text with two aims: appealing to readers and achieving prominence in the results listed by search engines for particular results.

Views on SEO copywriting and its relationship to ‘ordinary’ copywriting differ sharply. Some regard it as a completely different discipline, while others feel that writing strong, well-structured copy that works for users will ensure that SEO takes care of itself.

My own view is somewhere in the middle. While SEO copy needs to do all the things that every piece of copy does – engage readers, communicate benefits, explain information, prompt action – it also needs to be written in the very specific way that indicates relevance to search engines. And, crucially, that may require some compromise in terms of phrasing and expression – for example, by using a keyword repeatedly rather than varying the usage through synonyms as a copywriter normally would.

SEO copywriters need a broad range of skills, some aesthetic and some technical. They need to be able to write reasonably good web copy that appeals to readers and generates sales. But because SEO is largely a function of the way a web page is coded, as well as the content it features, SEO copywriting shades into web design and web development. SEO copywriters need to understand technical issues such as meta tags, heading levels, anchor text, word-stemming and keyword density. These concepts might be a completely closed book to an advertising copywriter.

For more on the unique attributes of SEO copywriting, see this post.

Online article copywriting

On the face of it, writing online articles is the same as writing for offline media – there’s a brief, perhaps a word count, and the copywriter produces the text. However, because some SEO strategies require the creation of large amounts of on-topic copy, there’s a large market for mass-produced, relatively low-quality articles and web pages that are posted at article sites or used to add search-friendly content to clients’ sites. Sometimes, online press releases are also used to build search profile, and these are also churned out with an eye on speed and quantity rather than quality.

To satisfy this demand for content, so-called ‘content mills’ such as Copify and Demand Studios have emerged. These act as middlemen between clients (often SEO or digital agencies) and freelance copywriters, setting rates (usually by the word) and taking a percentage of the fee as their reward. It’s a high-volume, fast-turnaround business.

Writing online articles may be a good way to get started in copywriting, but it’s important to keep your eyes open. Because the content may be intended more for search engines than human readers, you’re not going to be widely read or build up a winning portfolio by creating it. And because the rates are low, putting too much care and attention into your copy simply reduces your effective hourly rate – potentially well below the UK minimum wage.

My article on the content mill phenomenon, What copywriting clients can’t get from content mills, discusses the drawbacks of paying for content by the word.

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