Don't shoot the copywriter

Am I paranoid or does copywriting have a bad name in content strategy circles?

The more I read, the more I feel like some members of the CS community want to distance themselves from copywriters. Worse, an ad hoc caste system seems to be emerging:

  • At the bottom are copywriters, who come in two flavors. 1) hacks hired at the last minute to fill lorem ipsum holes. 2) con artists who dupe guileless souls with malevolently persuasive copy.
  • Web writers are noble experts. They “get” the web. They are domain experts who lovingly craft interesting content refreshingly devoid of marketing messages and sales copy.
  • Content strategists are the new Brahmins. Gandalf meets Yoda.

Stop the stereotypes

I started out as a copywriter, and copywriting still plays a large part in all the content strategy work that I do. I realize that I’m starting to sound defensive, but I rarely recognize myself in how people describe copywriting.

Even Kristina Halvorson let me down on this one. There’s a whole section in her seminal book entitled “It’s not copy. It’s content.” In it she describes her work in a previous life as a copywriter as Concept. Create. Revise. Approve. Then she shows a complicated diagram of the “messy content lifecycle,” implying that web writing is more complicated than the simple world of copywriting (and that many copywriters probably don’t want to deal with the mess.)

Huh? I can’t remember a copywriting project that was as straightforward as concept, create, revise, approve. Copywriting has mutated and evolved violently in the past 20 years. Some copywriters haven’t made the shift (or don’t want too) but the same is true for a long list of professions that have had their gravy train overturned by the web.  It’s not unique to copywriters. I get my hands dirty all the time. I learn about my clients, their business. I go deep. Not all copywriters operate that way, but many do.

Death to misconceptions

While I’m at it, let me kill a few more.

No such thing as the copywriter

The copywriter is not an archetype. Copywriting and copywriters come in all shapes and flavors.

No content strategy without words

You can strategize forever, but unless someone is willing and able to do what I call the “heavy lifting,” your website will go wordless.

No content strategy without copywriting

Copywriting is a form of content, but not the only form. Stop setting content against copy, as if the former is beter than the latter.  Focus on picking the right writer(s).

Persuasive isn’t evil

Content isn’t a deodorant. It doesn’t have to stay dry to be effective. Persuasion is part of content’s job. As Nicole Jones wrote recently:  “writing influences perception and understanding. It influences the experience.”

Bad content isn’t (only) the copywriter’s fault

Copy doesn’t suck because it was written by a copywriter. And it won’t necessarily be better if it’s written by a web writer or guided by a content strategist. Lack of resources (time, money, thinking, governance) produces more bad content every year than an army of copywriters ever could.

We’d all be money ahead if we stopped blaming the copywriter and started working together to redefine what it means to write for the web.

For the moment, the article by Nicole Jones that I quoted from earlier is the most sensible and inspiring thing I’ve read so far on the subject.

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7 comments on “Don't shoot the copywriter

  1. Kristina Halvorson
    July 3, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi Richard,

    This is an outstanding post. I really commend you for your clear-headed thinking and for the way you bring your own experience to the table.

    I do, however, want to clarify my position about the copywriter.

    I started as a copywriter. I am still very much a copywriter. Believe it or not, one of the main reasons I wrote Content Strategy for the Web was on behalf of copywriters everywhere. It was (and is) my hope that, by helping folks recognize we do WAY more than just replace lorem ipsum on wireframes, our talents and insights would be *elevated* within the project process and common team structures.

    It’s been my experience that copywriters, in general, are perceived the way you describe above…not by content strategists or web-only writers, but by *clients* and by *internal marketing/corp comm/product/etc.* teams.

    Content strategists are the last people who would ever, ever blame copywriters for crappy content. It’s the folks who think that copywriting is simple (concept, create, revise, approve) who are getting in your/our way.

    I don’t think copywriting is simple. It’s a science and an art. I fully recognize its inherent complexities. It’s the folks running the projects who don’t get it.

    Having said that: I do believe that, yes, the folks writing for websites inherently have additional responsibilities beyond that of the traditional copywriter. It’s the web writer’s job not only to create persuasive, engaging copy, but also to ensure that copy is usable online. This might mean creating relevant metadata, considering web-friendly formatting, translating IA documentation, and so on.

    I encourage you to revisit some of the writing on the subject and reframe it based on this position: content people get it. Project teams and clients don’t. It’s the assumptions that copywriting is “simple” that end up burning the copywriter in the end.

    KH

    • Rich
      July 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

      Hi Kristina,

      Thanks for reading and commenting on my post. Insightful, as usual. I have to admit to being a bit worried about how you would react to my comments about your book.

      Your last paragraph hit a button. Without wanting to be a tease, I have been thinking a lot about why some people “get it” and others don’t. After a series of meetings this week, a lightbulb went off. Will be the subject, hopefully, of my next post.

      Rich

  2. Kristina Halvorson
    July 4, 2010 at 4:15 am #

    Dude. People need to challenge my book. That’s the other reason I wrote it. Someone needed to throw the proverbial plate of spaghetti on the wall to see what would stick. It’s up to YOU to move the conversation forward…

  3. Kenneth Yau
    July 5, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    Hi Richard,

    I definitely hear where you’re coming from here. I agree with Kristina that content people ‘get’ copywriting, mainly because many content people come from that area. However, I do see some content strategists over-playing the ‘content is not copy’ angle. As you mention, there’s an attitude out there that copywriters are ‘hacks hired at the last minute to fill lorem ipsum holes’. From that, what I’ve seen is a few content managers and content strategists conflating the lorem ipsum issue with copywriting, so they’ve been at pains to distance themselves from copywriting. I’m not saying it’s right but if you think ‘copywriting=lorem ipsum replacement’, it’s easy to see why you’d want to create a discrete discipline of content that sits above copy in a hierarchy (or caste system).

    Blog posts like yours are a timely reminder to the misguided.

    Cheers,

    Ken

    • Rich
      July 6, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

      Hi Ken,

      Hi Ken,

      Good to hear from you. I’m seeing the same thing you describe: some (by no means all) content people trying to drive a wedge between content and copy. I’ve never been a big fan of what I call negative identity (think negative space; defining something by saying what it isn’t). Too reactionary for my tastes. Sure, content and copy are different, but one isn’t inherently better than the other. Like saying a flathead screwdriver is better than a philips head. They’re both screwdrivers. One’s just more suitable for some tasks than the other, but both are good for screwing. But I’d better stop with that metaphor before I get in trouble.

      Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

      Rich

  4. Carolyn Wood
    July 19, 2010 at 2:27 am #

    I agree with you. Thanks for jumping in and addressing this. Although I know that Kristina respects writing on the web (and those are her roots), elsewhere I’ve seen people sort of implying that when the grand strategist finishes work, then way down at the end of the assembly line a writer is pulled in to follow the directions she has received and dumbly and dutifully produce “something.” Whatever happened to the concept of the INTELLIGENT WRITER FOR THE WEB? For Pete’s sake, when I write for someone, I’m thinking about voice, brand, IA, user experience, strategy, and virtually everything else that a content strategist does (although I’m not overjoyed at the thought of doing audits in Excel on 1000 page sites). Side note: Of course, there will always be constraints (just as there will be for content strategists, designers, etc.) when clients just want things done a different way or ignore your pleas to structure the site differently, so sites may not turn out the way you’d hoped.

    Until the name was invented for content strategy I just assumed that as a professional, creative, smart writer I was supposed to ask these questions and do all of these things. True, if you have an enormous site and the work needs to be divided up between a large team, the writer will just write. But they still need to understand all of the decisions, they’ll still question a number of the decisions (if they’re worth their salt) and, like the designer, the writer’s work is where the rubber meets the road. No matter how good the content strategist is, if the writer isn’t a big thinker who knows nuance, too, and a craftsman, you’ll end up with crap. Strategy is inherent in my approach to writing and has been from the beginning. This is true of every good writer I know. I’d like to see a lot more talk about this when content strategy is addressed. Yes, content is more than text. Guess what? Good writers know that and have a long history of being involved in determining what content, in addition to text, is needed. I think Kristina’s book actually intends to help clients recognize this. But, I do wish that there was a whole lot more talk about this, so we don’t just have a rush of clients racing to hire the latest buzzword “content strategist” when they don’t understand that what they really just need is smart people handling every aspect of their site.

    Strategy may come before writing in the *process*, but we shouldn’t turn that into writing being lower in the hierarchical list of what is important. (Oh, oops, just noticed that Kenneth also spoke of hierarchy in the comments.) It’s not a lesser job. (Spoken as someone who does both.) As we continue to move forward from Kristina’s seminal work, it’s essential that we don’t use “content strategy” as a term to trick the client into paying more attention to, and more money for, the writing on the site. Then we’ve just turned content strategy into a shell game or a jargon-filled pseudoscience.

    Thank you! 🙂

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