What on Earth is Copywriting? (An Easy Explanation & Fascinating History)

As a budding or current entrepreneur, you’ve probably considered or started selling online. And you want to know how to make or increase online sales.

If you’ve asked around for advice from other entrepreneurs, you’ve probably heard many of them say, “You need good copy” or, “You should hire a good copywriter” as one of the important components to effectively sell your products and services online.

All fine and dandy… but what is copywriting?

If you don’t really know what copywriting is and you’re wondering why everyone is saying it’s so important, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Confession: I’m a copywriter, and when I started my first copywriting job I didn’t understand what copywriting was either! Good thing I’ve figured it out, so I’m going to let you in on what I’ve learned in my 10+ years of experience as a copywriter.

Common Confusions on Copy

Is a copywriter someone who “copies” words from somewhere else? (Quick answer: not exactly).

Is “copywrite” that thing you have to get when you want to protect your original content and prevent people from stealing it? Nope. “Copyright” and “copywrite” are two different words with two completely different meanings, but they sound the same. (I know, confusing right?)

“Copyright” — with an ‘r’ — is that legal stuff to protect original content in your business. “Copywrite” — with a ‘wr’ — relates to communication and persuasion.

Alright, so now you have an idea of what copywriting is NOT. Great. But what exactly is it?

In a Nutshell

In order to understand what copywriting is, let’s zoom out and look at the larger world of writing.

Words have two broad purposes in the world of writing. Here’s how I define it.

1) Words that express / entertain
Purpose: Words that tell a story with an intent to express or entertain.
Examples: Fiction books, scripts for television, plays, movies, poetry, spoken word, lyrics of a song.

This field is generally called “creative writing”.

2) Words that inform / educate / incite action / sell
Purpose: Words with an intent to inform or educate people of a certain matter, or compel people into taking action (whether that means signing a petition or buying a product).
Examples: Non-fiction books, annual reports, the nutrition label at the back of a box of Cornflakes, a news article, a blog post, websites, advertisements of all kinds, as well as direct selling materials such as flyers, brochures, sales emails, and sales pages.

This field is generally called “copywriting”.

In a nutshell, creative writing expresses or entertains;
copywriting informs or sells.

Why is it Called Copywriting? Unraveling the Mysterious Origins

There is a fascinating etymology and history behind the word ‘copywriting’.

According to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Words Origins , the word “copy” has “a very devious semantic history”.

The word “copy” ultimately originates from the Latin word ‘cōpia’ which is constructed from ‘coopia’. ‘Co’ means “together” (just like how cooperation means to “operate together”), and ‘ops’ means “wealth, riches” (hence why the word “opulent” means “luxurious” or “lavish”).

Put together, ‘cōpia’ means ‘abundance’ as it brings together wealth and riches. Over time, the word ‘cōpia’ became associated with anything in plentiful numbers. By the age of Medieval Latin, ‘copia’ had evolved to mean “transcript” AND “reproduction”, as replicating an original piece has made the transcript plentiful in numbers (and this is where duplicating something is also called “copying”).

Later, the French adopted the word ‘copie’ into their language to mean “abundance” or “transcript”. In the 1300s, “copy” was absorbed into the English language to mean either an abundance of something, or a written account of something.

When Europe invented the modern newspaper and duplicated them in large numbers for mass distribution in the early 1600’s , the word “copy” evolved to mean the words for a news story. From there, the skills and occupations around the production of copy for newspapers proliferated: Copy-boy, Copy-reader, Copy-editor, and of course, Copy-writer.

These new terms were prominently used by the newspaper industry for many centuries before it was borrowed into the advertising industry. The earliest known citation of the word “copy” and “copywriter” used in an advertising context was published in the book by Earnest Elmo Calkins and Ralph Holden, “The Art of Modern Advertising” , in 1905.

From there, it is most probably due to the simultaneous rise of industrialisation and explosion of advertising in the early 20th century that the word “copywriter” gained traction to be exclusively known as “a professional writer of advertisements” (i.e. someone who writes copy to incite action or sell something). To avoid confusion, newspapers stuck to the words “news writer” and “journalist” (i.e. someone who writes copy to inform or educate).

Copywriting Unlocked!

So there you have it. Now you know what it means when someone says things like, “I need copy for my product” or, “I need a copywriter to write my website”.

Now, there are many different types of copy an entrepreneur needs to make online sales, but I’ll save that topic for my next post. So stay tuned for more 🙂

Let there be write,
Lisa Z.

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