Marketing 101: Copywriting vs. Copy Editing vs. Content Writing

Marketing has a language all its own. This is our latest in a series of posts aimed at helping new marketers learn that language. What term do you find yourself explaining most often to new hires during onboarding? .

I recently received the following request about one of our MECLABS Institute Research Partners  (MECLABS is the parent research organization of MarketingSherpa.) …

“One of the pages we are building is a Bio page/section. The Research Partner is having their people write their own bios.

I know you’re already working closely on the other pages, but wanted to see if you would be able to take those and do some minor copy editing …”

Now, we have an excellent copy editor (the blog post you’re reading right now is likely far better than my original draft, thanks to Linda Johnson). And while I’m quite confident of my copywriting skills, I readily admit I am a very poor copy editor … but I’m often mistaken for one since the different words sound so similar.

I bring up this example for the latest in our series of marketing terms posts because I’ve often seen the two terms confused by marketing managers, project managers and the like. Throw in content writing as well, and it gets even more confusing.

So to help you differentiate between similar roles and find the person with the skill sets you need for your websites, blogs, print ads, direct mail letters, brochures, product spec sheets, catalogs, and on and on, here’s a quick guide. Even if you’re on the marketing technology side and don’t consider yourself a “creative,” it helps to know the people you should call when you need help.

Copywriting — Helping the customer come to the best decision about a brand, product or conversion goal

The copywriter writes TV commercials, radio spots, print ads, marketing emails, direct mail, brochures, out-of-home advertising and other types of advertising or marketing. The goal is usually to get an action from a customer, whether that’s making a purchase, becoming a lead, giving a donation or coming to a conclusion about a brand (branding).

Harry McCann famously coined the phrase “The truth well told” for advertising.

Copywriters are the ones who tell it well.

But digging in and finding the truth is also integral. From my experience as a copywriter, for the most successful projects, really only about 20% of the work involves getting the wording just right. The other 80% involves digging and probing and searching and brainstorming and thinking and feeling and experiencing so that the wording communicates an essential truth about the product that truly resonates with the ideal customers.

Interviewing customers and employees. Reading company literature and external reviews. Experiencing the product first-hand when possible. And digging to find that ultimate kernel of truth that captures the essence of the golden nugget that is the product’s unique value proposition.

It’s part anthropologist, part investigative journalist and part novelist.

Copywriters are curious folks, in both meanings of that word. They have a hunger to learn and know. And they’re also a bit odd. They usually don’t conform to society too well.

But this outsider’s perspective helps them capture that brand and product essence that so many others can overlook.

The way the actual work breaks down will vary by agency or company. At some agencies, account executives, creative directors, marketing research folks and other people might engage in the research element and just provide a brief of some sort for the copywriter to crank out the copy.

Some in-house copywriters are already so familiar with their brands and product that they already deeply understand what an outsider would have to learn.

And the internet is now littered with freelance copywriters — both foreign and domestic — at a range of costs and values. Some will write anything you tell them to. If you say your product is the Earth-shattering, world-changing, amazingest, bestest thing ever, they’ll write that.

It doesn’t mean the customer will believe it though.

So don’t just look for a copywriter who can effortlessly put pen to paper and make the words sound smooth and inviting.

Look for a copywriter who will challenge you. Question you. Push you. Dig around a little. Wants to talk to customers, employees, and try the product out for herself. Will serve as an advocate for the customer. And ultimately provide not just copy but wise counsel as well.

Copy editing – Making sure the writing is factual, correct and flows well

A copy editor engages in proofreading, fact-checking, grammar correction, fixing sentence structure, removing duplicate words, and engaging in other activities to make sure the writing reads well.

Copy editing isn’t unique to marketing and advertising; it’s also a necessity in publishing. Newspapers have copy editors, and larger newspapers even have entire copy desks.

Copy editors base their work on a style guide. There are generally accepted styles, such as the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook used by journalism organizations or the Chicago Manual of Style which is used more for academic writing. Many publications and large brands have their own style guide too. For example, our MECLABS Style Guide that we use for our brands is based on AP style but modified to reflect our work — writing heavily online about digital marketing along with our own terminology and methodology.

A good copy editor has a natural-born gift in some ways. It’s the kind of person who doesn’t only copy edit on the job. They notice the grammar abuses, errors and oversights everywhere they go in the world — an apostrophe error in a sign, a painting that is hung slightly askew. At work, they channel that ability into better copy.

Good copy editors work closely with writers. They teach while they change to help improve future copy. They’re making editorial suggestions, not diktats from on high. I like to say publishing is like launching a missile. It takes two to turn the key — the writer and the copy editor. They should be balanced and agree; neither should take over and work independently.

While it may seem minor, copy editing can have an outsize impact. It can be the difference between familial comradery — “Let’s eat, Grandma!” — and cannibalism — “Let’s eat Grandma!” Done poorly or not at all, customers will lose trust in your brand. If a company can’t even spell correctly, why trust them enough to buy a car from them or become a client? An email rife with errors is more likely to be considered spam.

Copy editors are a passionate bunch. As the satirical newspaper The Onion once joked, “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence.” Sometimes their passions can seem arcane. Just try asking a copy editor for his opinion on the Oxford comma. But these seemingly arcane rules can have a major impact on the clarity of communication. For example, the lack of an Oxford comma in a state law in Maine led to a $5 million judgment in a lawsuit.

Traditional copy editing was once done only in written form on a piece of paper with an actual red pen. It had its own language of symbols. For example, “stet” means to disregard a suggested change, literally “let it stand.” Today copy editing usually happens in digital form, aided by Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature and, for the quality copy editor who teaches and communicates well, the Comments feature.

For the marketing manager, project manager or account executive, consider using a copy editor to ensure the quality of your writers’ work on your website, print ads, emails, etc. Sometimes though, you won’t need a writer at all and can rely on the copy editor for the entire project. Spec sheets, directories, or even some catalogs that don’t rely on copy (though other catalogs have the best copy you’ve ever read) are some examples.

It’s important to think of the copy editor when you’re planning dates and deadlines. As the QA (quality assurance) analyst of communications, the copy editor’s job comes last, putting them under significant deadline pressure — even more so if all the other tasks upstream weren’t well planned and executed in a timely fashion.

In a tense, dramatic scene in Stephen Spielberg’s recent movie “The Post,” after a middle-of-the-night decision to publish, the article copy is fired over to the copy editor through a vacuum tube. He then grabs his red pen perched behind his ear and furiously marks up the copy, trying to meet the print deadline. Great in a movie. But plan well, so you won’t have to put your copy editors under that pressure.

Content Writing — Delivering value that stands on its own while building an audience to promote a brand

Content writing is the practice of writing blog posts, podcasts, case studies, video scripts, white papers, social media updates, webinars and other pieces that power content marketing. If content marketing is brand publishing, then these are the journalists and reporters of the brand publication.

Unlike copywriting, the content should have its own value proposition. While a print ad is made to directly foster a conclusion about a product, a blog post is meant to have value in its own right. People wouldn’t buy a newspaper that was just a giant promotion for a product. And they don’t engage with (and certainly don’t share) content that is just a promotion for a product either.

As content marketing has grown in popularity and budget expenditure, it has seen an interesting convergence of writers and producers from both sides. The typical advertising agencies and copywriters have jumped into the game (I myself was a copywriter before I was a content writer). But publications and career journalists have also hopped in from the other direction as well.

Many writers are skilled enough to do both copywriting and content writing, but marketing managers should know that these are discrete skillsets. I’ve seen some copywriters struggle with making the transition. So focused on finding the product promotion angle, they struggle with finding a story angle that has value in its own right, and they end up creating content that is too promotional and strikes the wrong tone.

While copy editing is crucial to both content writing and copywriting, content writing is best served by having another type of editor involved as well — the content editor. Not to be confused with copy editing, the content editor is very different. The copy editor thinks micro, the content editor thinks macro. They can manage an overall publication, be it a blog, brand magazine, or flow of content coming from a brand through many channels. They oversee a content calendar and work on content themes and topics either pitched by writers or topics they discover themselves.

When editing an individual piece, they help craft effective titles, make sure the angle is compelling for their brand’s audience, check that the writing accurately reflects the brand’s position and is in the right brand voice, and ensure the overall piece has correct and helpful information for the industry it is serving.

In a small-enough organization, the content writer and content editor are the same person wearing two hats. In a larger organization, the content editor divvies up work among staff writers or outsources to freelance writers. When outsourcing, it’s important for the content editor to understand and clearly articulate the proper story angle and brand voice as well as match the freelance content writer up with subject matter experts (SMEs) when necessary for the topic.

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter .

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About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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