There must be as many ideas about copywriting as there are individual copywriters. Personally, I define copywriting as follows: Copywriting is the optimum use of language to promote or persuade.
Now, let me work through the components of my definition.
First, copywriting is focused on finding the optimum way to communicate. The professional copywriter is always striving for the right answer: the right length of text, the right form, the right tone, the right choice of words. Committed copywriters are convinced that there is a single best solution, and they’re driven to discover it. Like Coleridge, they want to put down ‘the best words in the best order’.
Next, use tells us that copywriting is a ‘useful art’: a creative activity, but one with a practical purpose. In contrast to creative writing – writing mainly in order to entertain, or provoke thought – copywriting is about achieving a clearly defined outcome in the real world. We might enjoy reading (or writing) great copy, but it still exists to do a job. And we can measure the value of copywriting by the extent to which it succeeds in its purpose – either subjectively, by judgment, or objectively through quantitative measures like increased sales.
Language is the raw material that the copywriter uses. Note that I don’t say ‘writing’ – copywriting includes any carefully chosen language, including broadcast media or person-to-person verbal communications like telephone scripts. It can also encompass visual language as well as verbal: the copywriter will often want to have a say in context and presentation (typography, design, imagery) to heighten the impact of their copy. These so-called ‘presentational’ aspects can have a profound impact on the effectiveness of text; imagine a macho motorbike slogan set in pink Copperplate handwriting.
Most copywriters are trying to promote something with their copywriting: products or services usually, but also new ideas about them (as in rebranding exercises) or points of view (as in political campaigning). The copywriter’s goal is to communicate advantages, strengths, plus-points or benefits so their audience buys into them – whether literally, by making a purchase, or metaphorically, by accepting a viewpoint as valid. (The evil twin of promotional copywriting, ‘knocking copy’, aims to denigrate a rival product, service or idea by highlighting its weaknesses, drawbacks or inferiority.)
Persuasion means encouraging people to think, feel or act in a particular way. The good copywriter leads their audience by the hand across the stepping-stones of reading, thinking, feeling and acting – in that order. Persuasive copywriting is 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 real things happen with something as insubstantial as words written on a page.