What is Copywriting? A Modern Definition and How-To Guide

What Is Copywriting? The How-To Guide for Freelancers. Makealivingwriting.comIt’s a question so simple, you might think everyone already knows the answer: What is copywriting?

But in my decade-plus helping newbie writers launch their freelance careers, I’ve learned not to assume. People come from all walks of life into freelance writing, and aren’t born knowing the lingo.

When I researched this question, it got even more interesting. Because I disagreed with many of the most popular posts on the topic.

What I have for you isn’t your grandpa’s copywriting definition and description. It’s a rebel’s 21st Century copywriting definition — and a how-to guide on how to break in and do it.

How copywriting evolved
Old copy hacks will tell you copywriting is the art and science of crafting writing that sells.

They’ll tell you writing that overtly sells a product or service is copywriting — and everything else is ‘not copywriting.’

That was once true — but it isn’t any more. Because the Internet changed much of what we once knew about marketing.

I’ve got a new definition of copywriting for you, one I think is more accurate for the 21st Century marketing era we live in now.

Read on to learn what copywriting is today, how to do it — and how you can capitalize on the changes to earn well as a freelance writer.

A copywriting definition for the 21st Century

What is copywriting today? Well, here’s the funny thing. You can still define it in much the same way, broadly:

“Writing that helps make a sale.”

What’s different now, from how it used to be?

The selling process has evolved. A lot of it is much more subtle. How the copy helps make a sale may differ.

We’ve entered the age of authority building through informational writing. In an era of endless internet scams, people buy from companies they know, like, and trust.

How do they come to trust them, and decide to buy? By reading their informational content. Info is often the first step down the yellow brick road to a purchase.

Therefore, that info content is copy, too. I was being told that all blog posts are copy more than a decade ago.

Yet if you look for copywriting definitions, you still see the same ‘it’s only sales writing’ definition, if you ask Google ‘What is copywriting?’

My 21st Century definition:

“Writing that helps make a sale, either overtly or covertly.”

In other words, anything you write for a business is copy. It all exists to make sales. If it doesn’t help make sales, the company won’t continue putting out that sort of copy.

Understanding that all business writing is copy is key to earning more, as a freelance copywriter. That’s why I wanted to lay this all out for you.

Understand that everything you write helps make a sale, in some way. Your copy makes them money. Even if it’s blog posts.

That blog post makes a reader subscribe, which gives the company an email, and then the company sells that lead. Thanks to your blog post.

On the other side of the fence from copy is editorial — articles you write for digital and physical newspapers and magazines. These pieces are not copy. Usually. (Stay tuned for more on that.)

Confused? Let me break out the two different types of copywriting for you, so you know the difference.

Traditional copywriting explained

Copywriting as old-timers describe it is, concisely, writing that gives you the selly-sell, as Chris Brogan calls it.

This copy pulls no punches. It’s here to sell you something. Right now. It wants you to buy the thing the minute you finish reading it.

Types of sales copywriting

Some popular types of sales copywriting you probably know are:

  • Print, radio, podcast, internet, and TV advertising
  • Billboards
  • Direct response mailers
  • Product or service sales pages
  • Short “squeeze” pages to capture emails
  • Product packaging copy
  • Fundraising letters
  • Video sales letters

You get the idea. If it says, “buy now!” at the end, it’s sales copywriting.

The structure of sales copywriting mystifies many writers, and makes them feel like they’re not ‘qualified’ to do this sort of well-paid writing work. So let’s end that now with a quick training:

A 5-minute copywriting course

Many folks online would like you to pay them big money to take an elaborate copywriting course. But if you understand some basic principles of traditional sales copywriting, you can get started in it with the fundamentals below.

What’s in a sales piece? There are many variations, but it all boils down to a few key points. Here’s a simple sample structure that I use for sales pages for my own courses and community.

  • Catchy headline: Relates to your topic and is a must-read for your audience
  • Present problem: What is the challenge your customer faces?
  • Agitate problem: Why does this problem cause them pain and woe?
  • Explain solution: Namely, why your solution is the best one.
  • Remove objections: Detail why solution is better than competitors’, is a great value, can be paid in installments — anything that makes the purchase a no-brainer.
  • Offer proof of concept: Testimonials, social-media raves, and customer mini-stories aid in removing doubts.
  • Create urgency: Are there only 10 spots left? Or is the deadline tonight, and then the item goes away forever? If you have scarcity, play on FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • Guarantee: If you can offer some kind of guarantee — limited-time, partial refund, 100% return/refund forever, no questions asked — it’s a good thing.
  • Call to action: What do you want the reader to do? Call your hotline, place their order, book a consult…whatever makes the sale happen.

That’s it! The rest is just practice. Find a small business in your town that needs a sales page written or a mailer created, do it pro bono for the clip, and you’re on your way.

6 Quick copywriting tips

How do you put these sales copywriting puzzle pieces together to create great sales copy? Here are my top copywriting tips:

  1. Be concise. Think short sentences, short paragraphs, quick bullets, simple explanations.
  2. Keep it focused. Good copy doesn’t go down rabbit trails.
  3. Be conversational. Stiff, business-letter writing is out of style.
  4. Use simple words. 8th grade reading level is widely considered ideal.
  5. Stress benefits more than features. Don’t just recite how many knobs this has, talk about how great the buyer will feel when they’ve got your thing.
  6. Think scannability online. People tend to skim on the internet, so make sure they can do it with your copy and still get the drift.

Now that you understand the fundamentals of sales copy, let’s turn to the other branch of copywriting: informational copy that’s created to build authority and make customers decide to trust — and ultimately, buy from — a business.

Why trust-building copy rules

The ’60s and ’70s are widely considered the heyday of sales copywriting. We were happy being sold, we loved the TV jingles and brand mascots, we ate it up.

Then, gradually, people got sick of being sold all the time.

Instead, they wanted to be cared about and helped. Right about then, the internet came along and made it extremely inexpensive to create helpful content.

And authority-building info content was born, as a softer, gentler road to making sales.

People love useful info, and the internet teems with experts, thought leaders, CEOs and such hoping to publish content that’ll get them that next funding round, paid speaking gig, book deal, startup acquisition suitor, or better job. And they’re all looking to have someone ghostwrite authority posts for them, on Forbes, LinkedIn, Medium, Huffington Post, and more.

Authority content provides useful info to the reader, which demonstrates how insightful the thought leader or company is that presented it. The information helps the reader in some way, in their business or their lives.

It’s usually free, and readers love that. But underneath all info content created by businesses runs a subliminal message:

I care about you — see how I gave you useful free stuff? You know me now. I’m trustworthy. If you need my kind of solution, you should buy it from me.

Each piece of info content a company releases is like a drop of water on a rock, slowly eroding customer resistance to making a purchase. Drip, drip, drip it goes, delighting readers with your knowledge and generosity.

Until that reader becomes a raving fan who wants to buy everything the company’s got.

Common types of trust-building copy

If you read online, you encounter authority copy all the time. Familiar types include:

  • Blog posts
  • Articles (for company websites)
  • Case studies
  • White papers
  • Special reports
  • How-to guides
  • Books and e-books
  • Checklists, worksheets, tool lists

These are all clear information wins. It even works to link to something you sell, inside one of these info products, or in an ad banner at the end of it. The info piece builds confidence and trust in the reader, and maybe they end up on a sales page elsewhere on your site and buy something as a result.

Done right, the reader still feels like your info content was just there to help them. Created out of the goodness of your heart.

There are a couple of places where the lines between sales copy and authority copy get blurred, though…

Copy that both sells and informs

You start to see why it’s all copywriting when you consider two popular forms of useful content these days: The print advertorial and the sponsored blog post online.

Ever see an article in a magazine, but it was labeled ‘advertorial’ or ‘advertising’ at the top?

These articles are paid for by businesses. They’re essentially paid ad space that the business has chosen to fill with info content.

It’s both an ad and free, useful information. Riding the line between our two types of copywriting.

The online version of this is the sponsored post, which tellingly is also known as ‘native advertising.’ A post about how to save money on shipping that says ‘Sponsored by UPS’ at the top? That’s a sponsored blog post. The company paid to have that post appear (and often paid a ghostwriter to write it, too).

The funny thing is, even though it’s disclosed that the company has paid for the opportunity to build its authority with you, readers still love the useful free info.

Authority posts that sell

One more example of where the lines blur — seeing a growing number of LinkedIn Pulse articles that are not labeled as sponsored content…but have an overt sales message or call to action tacked on the end of the useful info (or woven into the body copy). As in:

“Need a content writer? Contact me at [email].”

And thus does sales copy begin to creep into authority content. I think it’s cringy and wrong, but apparently not everyone does. We’ll see where that goes.

There’s one more layer to copywriting in the modern era that affects everything you write that appears online. It’s used in both sales copy and authority-building info content. Let’s tackle that now.

Where SEO copywriting fits in

I can almost hear you asking, ‘Does SEO matter in copywriting?’

If you’re writing online, yes, it surely does. For the uninitiated, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.

This is the art of writing online while artfully including keyword phrases, to help your copy get relevant readers from search engines.

Put SEO and keywords together with copywriting, and you get SEO copywriting.

Pretty much everything you write online needs to take keywords into consideration. This ties into the goal of your piece — who are we trying to attract? What terms would they likely search on to find information about your client’s thing?

Every online writing assignment you do, either the client is going to tell you the key phrases they want to rank for on it, or they’re going to ask you to do the research and figure it out. There are many free keyword tools you can use to learn both how many people search for a phrase monthly, and how easy or hard it might be to rank high in search for it, a/k/a whether it’s ‘gettable’.

If your client isn’t interested in making an SEO plan for your copy, they’re an idiot. Your project probably won’t get many readers, so get ready for this writing job to end soon.

SEO copywriting examples

How does SEO work? Well, if you can’t tell, this useful post you’re reading is hoping to attract people typing the question “What is copywriting?” into search engines. Which is why that phrase is mentioned a half-dozen times.

I’ve bolded the keyword phrases in these recent headlines from here on the blog, to give you SEO copywriting examples:

Give those a read, and you’ll see that they mention those key phrases several times, along with a few related phrases. Yes? That’s the SEO component of my blog posts.

Train your brain to look for keywords, and start thinking about how people might search for the information or the product/solution you’re writing about. Soon, it’ll become second nature to research keywords and pick a phrase for your copy.

Trust me, you can do this. And good keyword tools will suggest related phrases to your suggested one, so you can compare and find the best one.

SEO copywriting tips

Want to become a crack SEO writer real quick? Here are a few quick tips:

  • Don’t overdo. Too many repetitions and Google will hate your page.
  • Stay conversational. The SEO phrase has to flow naturally in the copy.
  • Use related phrases. Google likes it if it sees other, similar phrases, too.
  • In headlines, phrase goes first or last. As you saw in the examples, first or last in the headline gives you the best SEO juice.

How many times should you repeat your keyword phrase? I’d give you a formula, but the rules for best keyword use change constantly. Don’t want this post to get dated, so recommend you read posts on SEO trends to stay up to date.

Why you don’t want to be an ‘SEO copywriter’

You will see many ads online seeking an SEO copywriter. Mostly, these are companies looking for someone to stuff keywords into copy until it’s total gibberish.

It’s just a plot to try to rank well in search. Trying to game the system and rank on Google searches. But not delivering value to the reader.

You’ll want to avoid these writing jobs, because they usually pay very, very little. And they don’t make for good portfolio samples. In a way, they’re not really writing jobs. Just a keyword-stuffing project.

Good-paying companies seeking a copywriter will typically ask many other questions before asking you about SEO. If all they want to know about is what SEO results you’ve gotten optimizing copy for search, you may want to pass.

What is copywriting? You tell me

There you have it — my definition of copywriting in the 21st Century.

What do you think? To me, copywriting is business writing, both sales writing and authority info content. But I know others disagree.

If you still feel only salesy writing is copywriting, that’s cool. You be you.

There’s certainly a particular skill set to sales copywriting, for sure — and sales copy’s closeness to the sale means it’s always in high demand and pays great.

If you write for businesses — even if it’s blog posts or articles — remember that what you write must help build authority and encourage sales. Or soon, your project will likely end.

When you’re bidding for business writing jobs, be sure to remind customers of the value your copy brings to their business. Remember: What you write helps companies make more money.

What’s your definition of copywriting? Leave it in the comments, and let’s discuss.

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16 comments on “What is Copywriting? A Modern Definition and How-To Guide
  1. Lucas says:

    Very useful article! I’m working on combining SEO and Copywriting together it seems like these two are a perfect fit nowadays.

  2. Lorenzo Gutierrez says:

    Hi Carol,

    SEO copywriting is a super in demand skill. I agree good paying companies are looking to hire these types of workers.

  3. Brent Lantzy says:

    Completely agree, Carol!

    You’re going to have the $2K copywriting course creators out of business with this post!

    I don’t think people respond well to traditional ‘salesy’ copywriting these days. People like to be informed and educated about solutions to their problems/needs. Nobody minds a pitch if it’s actually helpful. I always think of copywriting as ‘solution writing’ — words that lead someone with a need toward a practical solution.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I totally agree. Though even in our world of content writing, at some point, it’s time to close a sale — to say, ‘today’s the last day you can buy this thing.’ Or ‘here’s what’s in our course.’

      Sales writing will never go away, but there’s definitely a lot of companies going the soft-sell route now with content.

  4. Zarqah says:

    How can I write my first article

    • Evan Jensen says:

      Hi Zarqah,
      If you have zero samples, I’d reach out to your network and see if you can write a blog post, article, webpage copy, something simple. If you don’t have a good network and zero samples, reach out to your ideal client and pitch a small pro bono project. Another idea, you could also publish on your blog, Medium, or LinkedIn, for example, an article that would be relevant to your niche and ideal client. And of course, you can pitch prospects for paid assignments too. Mostly, just start. That’s how you write your first article. Keep going.
      Evan Jensen recently posted…What is Copywriting? A Modern Definition and How-To GuideMy Profile

  5. Tecla Fontenard says:

    Hi Carol. Amazing piece about copywriting. I couldnt stop reading. And, in fact, this piece is ALL what is writes about – sales writing, business writing and authority writing – all in one. You didnt just explain your copywriting conviction, but you exemplify it right here.

    • Evan Jensen says:

      Hi Tecla,

      Carol’s voice, style, experience, and advice ROCKS!. Favorite line from this post…

      “Each piece of info content a company releases is like a drop of water on a rock, slowly eroding customer resistance to making a purchase. Drip, drip, drip it goes, delighting readers with your knowledge and generosity.”

      It’s a reminder of just how much copywriting work is out there. Keep going.
      Evan Jensen recently posted…What is Copywriting? A Modern Definition and How-To GuideMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Glad you picked up on that, Tecla! Yes, we’re practicing what we preach here.

      We recently got an email from someone who thought we had a grammar problem because a sentence in the post started with ‘because.’ Someone who apparently hasn’t heard the news that blog posts are copywriting, a world where you can break grammar rules. 😉

      • Tecla Fontenard says:

        Wow. I have been using ‘because’ and ‘And’ at the beginning of sentences for a while now, since I was a student of Communications in the 1990s. When writing scripts for television, the English standards for how to begin the next bit of narration breaks tradition even more, when the flow or ‘the sell’ is more critical, than the accurate standard english formation. There is no monopoly on how to write creatively. Let us not even talk about songwriting…Good job Carol.

  6. Farhan says:

    Hi Carol,

    Your article really helps me a lot. I am a newbie writer I believe your article help me a lot to boost my writing skills especially copywriting. Could you check my blog articles and suggest some tips and rate them? Am I ready to land in the freelance market with the background of those writings?
    Keep motivating us!

    Desperate to listen to your reviews!!!

    • Evan Jensen says:

      Hi Farhan,

      Reviewing work is something we do inside the Freelance Writers Den (www.freelancewritersden.com)

      Are you ready to “land in the freelance market”? There’s really no requirement. Start pitching prospects to get your first assignment.

      Tip: Never sound “desperate” even if you are. Fake it till you make it. Keep going.
      Evan Jensen recently posted…What is Copywriting? A Modern Definition and How-To GuideMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      As Evan said, Farhan… regret that I can’t be a free 24/7 writing critique source for the many writers who ask me each week! But that IS why I invented the Den, to have a place where you CAN get feedback (without spending a fortune).

  7. Jeannie Michael says:

    Holy Moly, Carol. I am exhausted just trying to imagine how you find time and energy to lay out posts like this. It’s beyond impressive, it’s . . . oh dear. I’m at a loss for words. I think you got ’em all.

    Great post, btw.

  8. Skip Online says:

    This is very good, a great tutorial on copy-writing. I’ve been looking for something similar to this, I get so frustrated with some PDFs because they are usually long winded and filled with fluff. Some call it information overload, but I call it misinformation overload. Thank you once again, greatly appreciated.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Skip — glad you enjoyed!

      FYI, we generally don’t allow comment posters with obviously fake names — please bring your real full name next time you comment, so we can get to know you better. Look forward to it!