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Content writing or copywriting? Same thing, right? Before diving headfirst into the world of freelance writing (without even so much as a lifejacket), I’d assumed that content writing and copywriting were just two different names for the same thing.
You might be thinking ‘Well, aren’t they?’
Short answer: No. Not at all.
So what’s the difference then?
The purpose and intent behind a piece of writing is largely what determines whether it is copy or content. There can be some crossover, but for the most part these writing styles look quite different.
While some writers can wear both hats, many find they naturally gravitate to one style over the other. So let’s take an in depth look at what defines copywriting vs. content writing and help you discover which one is the best fit for your current skill set and freelance writing goals.
Content Writing vs. Copywriting: Purpose and Intent
The primary difference between content writing and copywriting is the intent behind the prose.
Anytime a piece of work is commissioned we should always ask – ‘What does this piece need to achieve?’.
Are we aiming to teach our audience something?
Are we trying to convince them to make a purchase?
Or perhaps we are wanting to make them laugh.
In a nutshell, copywriting aims to persuade a reader to partake in a specific action (often making some sort of purchase), while content writing’s primary aim is to educate or entertain.
So what does a copywriter actually do?
The primary goal of a copywriter is to convince and persuade someone to take a specific action.
Often a copywriter will start with a bold statement or question to catch an audience’s attention. Sometimes by declaring something controversial or asking a leading question about a problem their audience might be facing. For example: ‘Craving consistent income as a freelancer?’. They then proceed to persuade and convince their audience in a certain direction and finish with a CTA (Call To Action).
These CTA’s can range from joining an email list in exchange for a freebie, to signing up for a subscription service, or even buying a product.
Good copywriters have a knack for saying more with less.
Their prose is usually brief but potent and every word is strategic.
A really great copywriter will have an in-depth understanding of human psychology and know what makes people hit that ‘Buy Now’ button. They are able to rephrase the features of a product or service into intended benefits that resonate with their audience.
What does a content writer do?
A content writer’s main goal is to educate or entertain their audience.
This can range from a ‘How To’ style blog post to a detailed white paper, an ebook that explores a new skill or idea or a case study that delves into a particular person’s experience.
A good content writer can keep the attention of an audience over several thousand words or more, and a great content writer will even have them coming back for more.
Great content writing helps to establish a brand or organisation as an authority in a specific area or niche. It creates brand visibility and awareness and is typically featured earlier on in a buyer’s journey.
Like the ultimate wingman, a well-written piece of content will establish trust with an audience and pave the way for an excellent piece of copywriting to swoop in and close the deal.
What does copywriting look like?
Copywriting is typically shorter and snappier than content writing.
There’s often an emotionally driven element to it which capitalises on a specific problem, or pain point, of the intended audience.
These are some examples of effective copywriting:
- Ads that actually make you want to click on them
- Compelling email subject lines that grab your attention
- Catchy slogans or taglines that you couldn’t forget if you tried
- Sales pages that have you whipping out your credit card
When copywriting is done really well you most likely won’t even realise you’re being sold to. You’ll simply find yourself presented with a perfect solution to a problem you’re facing and be eager to purchase it.
What does content writing look like?
Content writing is typically longer in form than copywriting. A piece of content could be anywhere from a few hundred words to several thousand words or more.
Where copywriting is commonly bold and persuasive, content writing will usually be seeking to teach you something.
This could be an important life lesson taught through an amusing personal story, how to recognise the early signs of a stroke, or simply who designed Taylor Swift’s dress for the 2023 VMA’s (it was Versace).
There may still be an emotional element to the writing but, unlike copywriting, it’s likely there won’t be a sense of heightened urgency or pressure to take action.
Some examples of content writing include:
- Articles and blog posts
- White papers
- Case studies
- Press releases
- Email newsletters
The overlapping worlds of copywriting and content writing
While content writing and copywriting look vastly different on the outside, behind the scenes you’ll find a significant crossover in terms of writing skills. This is super helpful (and encouraging) to know for writers who are keen to try their hand at both.
If you’re already a content writer, dabbling in copywriting can actually make you an even better freelance writer. Why? Because the ‘soft skills’ you hone as a copywriter translate really well into the field of content writing.
These are some skills that overlap between both writing styles:
Understanding the audience you’re writing for
The better you understand your audience the more you can tailor your voice and your message to resonate with them on a deep and personal level.
Developing a deep understanding of the topic or subject matter
While it’s not necessary (or even particularly prudent) to choose a niche as a writer, you simply can’t write what you don’t know. And the more you know, the better.
Crafting hooks that get readers invested and engaged
In today’s information-saturated world, there’s never been a more important skill for any writer than learning how to capture (and keep) their audience’s attention.
There are many real life examples where the worlds of copywriting and content writing overlap, but perhaps the best example is sponsored content.
Show me the money: Comparing pay rates between content writers and copywriters
So who earns more money? Content writers or copywriters?
When it comes to salaried in-house positions, copywriters and content writers have fairly similar pay grades in Australia. According to glassdoor.com.au, the average annual salary for each role is $72K and $74K (AUD) respectively.
In the US the divide is slightly more pronounced, with copywriters earning an average of $57K (USD) annually and content writers earning $52K, according to payscale.com.
Things look a little different in the freelance game though.
Freelance copywriters are often able to charge a significantly higher rate than content writers. Their work tends to have a more immediately measurable ROI (return on investment), making it easier to demonstrate the value of their writing.
However, content writers can move the needle in their favour by being selective about the type of clients they write for. Finding high-paying corporate clients is a game changer for content writers that will have you earning at least as handsomely as a copywriter (if not better!)
Regardless of whether you’re a copywriter or a content writer, your pay rate is largely going to depend on the value you are able to provide and how well you can articulate that value to clients.
How is AI changing the writing landscape?
There’s no doubt that new AI tools, like ChatGPT, are creating a shift in the freelance writing industry, along with a side dish of panic.
And yes, AI has taken over low paying low quality content writing jobs and menial copywriting tasks like boring repetitive product descriptions.
But it’s not like you wanted those kinds of writing jobs anyway.
Here’s what the panic mongers aren’t telling you:
To get high-quality content out of AI tools you need to be able to recognise what makes a piece of writing good, and convey those principles to the writing bot effectively.
It also takes time, and an understanding of how each platform works, to get great results from AI content generators. Even then there’s usually significant editing required to bring the writing up to a high standard that’s both engaging and valuable for an audience.
Good writers who can clearly articulate their value won’t be getting replaced by robots anytime soon.
But writers who don’t embrace AI and use it to their advantage? It’s possible they may end up behind in the game.
Choose to become one of those writers who adopts new technologies while continuing to hone your writing skills. Whether you decide to focus on copywriting or content writing, you’ll be positioned to thrive in this new landscape.
Is copywriting or content writing the best fit for you?
You might be drawn towards content writing if you naturally love researching and presenting new ideas. Focus on honing your research skills, educate yourself on SEO best practices, and get super comfortable sending pitches – you’ll be kicking goals in no time.
If copywriting sounds more your style – start getting curious! Seek out and pay attention to all the places copywriting shows up around you. Take note of brand messaging that really appeals to you and start experimenting. Like many things in life, theory will only get you so far – we learn best by doing.
And if you can’t decide which one interests you the most? No problem, delve in and get your feet wet with both. You’ll soon work out what comes naturally to you and what style of writing gets you excited for Monday mornings!
Nicola Amy Hinman is a freelance writer currently living in Whangarei, New Zealand. She loves writing about all things health and wellness, food, and travel. Passionate about the freelancer lifestyle, her greatest joy is encouraging others to take the leap and become their own boss.
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