Are You Really a Writer … Or Just a Copyist?

Image of person sitting against wall with sign that says Will write for food

There is a terminology problem plaguing the content community.

It’s confusing marketers, it’s misleading clients, and it’s causing an identity crisis among content creators everywhere.

It seems that no one really knows what it means to be a writer.

And Merriam-Webster isn’t much help when it comes to defining this person. A “writer is someone whose work it is to write books, poems, stories, etc.” Or even more vague, a writer is “someone who has written something.”

And as Sonia Simone recently pointed out here at Copyblogger, there are even some people who think RealWriter is a software that uses algorithms to string together words. (You can’t blame Sonia when options like content generators and article spinning tools actually exist.)

This vague definition and the disparate views on what it takes to be a writer are allowing people to create their own idea of a writer and slap all kinds of connotations on it.

And this is really distorting the writing industry.

Which is why it’s time to draw some clear lines in the sand.

Writers wanted (copyists need not apply)

The terminology trouble is creating problems for markets trying to find writers, and for writers trying to find jobs. “Writers Wanted” jobs are hoping to target writers who are:

  • Journalists
  • Storytellers
  • Researchers
  • Investigators
  • Industry experts
  • Bloggers
  • Copywriters
  • Authors

But far too often, those who apply aren’t any of these things. They aren’t writers. They are copyists.

A copyist can be defined as a person who:

  • Wants to be paid to write a certain number of words
  • Is drawn to writing as a job, not as a calling
  • Is not trained or highly experienced in any specific writing style
  • Doesn’t have any industry specializations
  • Doesn’t have a unique perspective to share
  • Isn’t expecting to be highly compensated as they don’t expect to provide high-quality work

Merriam-Webster defines a copyist as “a person who transcribes” or “an imitator.”

It might seem silly to think that these attributes could be tied to a version of a writer, but the keyword-focused online marketing industry created and fueled a market that was looking for this exact type of writer.

But even now that the rules of the Internet have changed, and quality content written by real writers is all the rage, the copyists are still around.

And it’s time for them to go.

Creating a clear definition of a writer

In the State of Freelance Writing 2014 white paper, CopyPress first identified the need to stop thinking of writers as copyists, and start remembering what it really means to be a writer.

…writers were journalists. They were storytellers. They were researchers and investigators. They were trained in grammar and AP style. They held degrees in English, journalism, and creative nonfiction. They were people who wanted to be writers their entire lives, people who were passionate about writing and telling original stories from unique points of view.

So, the first step in clearing up the confusing definition of writer is identifying what the term is not: a writer is not a copyist.

The next step is identifying what the term is: a writer is an author or freelance commercial writer.

Ditching the copyist mentality

It’s pretty easy to tell if you are a copyist.

  • You are not passionate about writing. If you were offered a new job in another industry, you would leave writing behind without a second thought.
  • You accept all types of work-from-home jobs. The work-from-home aspect of writing is what draws you to the industry, and you also work in other kinds of work-from-home jobs.
  • You don’t read for pleasure. You don’t regularly read books, magazines, or newspapers, and you don’t have any favorite blogs.
  • Your finish line is a word count. When you receive a 500-word writing assignment, you write exactly 500 words.
  • You are not proud of your writing. The thought of sharing your writing with loved ones never crosses your mind.
  • You don’t write in your free time. You think writing is work, and if no one is paying for it, there is no reason to do it.
  • You think your writing is good enough. You don’t spend any time working on improving your craft. You don’t seek out constructive feedback and you don’t make revisions.

If you identified with one or more of these statements, it is quite possible that you are chasing the wrong career. Maybe you aren’t a writer after all.

But don’t be discouraged if you identified yourself as a copyist if you truly want to be a writer.

It’s not impossible for copyists to become writers — it just means you need to change your mindset and embrace the role of author or commercial freelance writer.

Embracing the role of author

One of the best definitions of an author is “a person who starts or creates something (such as a plan or idea).”

You are an author if:

  • You have original thoughts, perspectives, and opinions you want to share. Your writing doesn’t always rely on reiterating ideas from others. You use your own knowledge and thoughts to create original content.
  • You like to research and follow trends. To help you create your own thoughts, perspectives, and opinions, you are educated, engaged, and immersed in news that relates to your work.
  • You love reading. You frequently read books, magazines, and blogs. You are interested in the substance of the content, and also the delivery of the content. You read to see how other authors deliver their work.
  • You write in your free time. Even if you have no paid work in your queue, you are writing. Whether you are writing on your blog or an article that you hope to sell or even just jotting down ideas in a notebook, you are always writing and thinking about writing.
  • You have a portfolio. You have published samples of work (with bylines) that prove you are a powerful writer — even if the samples are self-published.

If you decide you are an author, there are a few things you can do to elevate your career.

1. Become a contributor. 

Guest posting and contributing to other blogs isn’t dead – especially not for authors.

Google’s Matt Cutts went after some kinds of guest posting because they were seeing too many copyists trying to contribute bogus content. But as they said, “There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there.”

That means authors can still benefit from the exposure that guest posting brings.

2. Pitch like a professional. 

We typically associate pitching with guest posting, but try approaching this like a traditional journalist.

Write a query letter that matches the tactics that magazine writers use when pitching print publications:

  • Share your idea
  • Explain why you are qualified to write it
  • Tell them how it will benefit their audience

This will help you attract more paid writing gigs.

3. Start blogging. 

You don’t need someone to pay to you to get your writing career going.

You are building a business and you need to start somewhere. Think about the free writing that you do as a start-up writing cost. It is marketing your writing.

So spend some time creating your own blog and writing about your topic.

4. Network. Network. Network. 

Connect to influential people in industries aligned with your niche market. Building relationships with them will help connect you to jobs and writing gigs.

Also connect to people who are less influential than you. Proving yourself as a helpful expert to people with less experience than you will lead them back to you when they need to hire someone for help.

With the appropriate mindset of a writer, and by following these tips, you’ll be able to land more jobs aligned with your skills and passions. 

An easy way to identify a job that is right for an author is to see if it includes a byline. The jobs that are a fit for authors include:

  • Feature articles
  • White papers and ebooks
  • Columns
  • Thought-leadership articles
  • News stories
  • Guides (that are not technical guides — technical writing is another genre entirely)
  • Blog posts (that are meant to represent industry ideas and opinions, not represent a brand)
  • Info videos (that are meant to represent industry information, ideas, and opinions)

Embracing the role of freelance commercial writer

A freelance commercial writer can be described as a “writer of advertising or publicity copy.” You fit the description of a freelance commercial writer if:

  • You are interested in marketing. You identify yourself as a writer as much as you identify yourself as a marketer. You know that commercial writing is as much about writing as it is about marketing and advertising.
  • You are can naturally imitate the voice of others. You have no problem absorbing the established tone of a brand, business, or person and mimicking it in the tone of your copy.
  • You know how to sell through words. You don’t write for words; you write for strong messages that encourage readers to act.
  • You like to write concisely. You have no problem cutting half of the words out of your first draft because you know that there is no room for flowery, ornate language.
  • You love reading advertising slogans and sales pitches. You like to analyze headlines, taglines, and ad copy to identify why the words work or why they don’t.
  • You know how to match your creativity with client goals. While you are great at thinking outside of the box and coming up with creative ways to approach editorial objects, you still understand the importance of aligning with client goals, perspectives, and opinions.

If you decide you are a freelance commercial writer, there are a few things you can do to elevate your career.

1. Create a website. 

While freelance commercial writers don’t need to blog quite as much as an author, they should still create a website that promotes them. Create a simple site that shows off your ability to sell through words.

Also, create a portfolio that features work you have done for clients, even if it doesn’t include a byline. (It is good practice to get client permission before featuring work you have done for them on your site.)

2. Brush up on your marketing and sales education. 

Don’t think that a writing background is enough if you want to succeed as a freelance commercial writer.

Continue to learn about the art and science of creating direct-response content that gets people to take some sort of action.

3. Network with other types of creatives.

Digital and visual media are continuing to grow in popularity, so network with other creatives that can help you create a variety of media like videos, infographics, and interactive apps.

Form relationships with designers and developers so you can complement each other’s skill sets in order to create high-end media that features copy along with images, graphics, and interactive elements.

Jobs that are best fits for freelance commercial writers are mostly jobs that promote a product, company, or service. Those projects typically include the following types of work.

  • Landing pages
  • Sales copy
  • Email newsletters
  • Web copy
  • Product/ecommerce copy
  • Press releases
  • Romance copy (copy that lures the reader in)
  • Blog posts (that are meant to represent and promote a brand)
  • Info video and commercial scripts (that are meant to promote a brand)

A clear definition benefits us all

With a clearer definition of what it means to be a real writer, there will be many winners:

  • Authors and freelance commercial writers will benefit as the industry will now have a better idea of what to expect from them.
  • Clients and marketers will benefit by being able to more easily identify writers who will be able to help them achieve their goals.
  • Audiences and readers will benefit by being exposed to more high-quality, effective, and enjoyable content.

How do you define a real writer?

And what about you … are you writer or a copyist? (And if the latter, do you yearn for change?)

I would love to hear your thoughts. Join the discussion over at Google-Plus.

And if you want a sneak peek at the The State of Freelance Writing 2014 white paper, you can read the first six pages for free (and even without registering) right here: Look Inside The State of Freelance Writing.


The next step for real writers

Copyblogger now has a Content Certification Program to support, educate, and promote writers.

If you’re a writer — a real writer, not a copyist — and you’re interested in becoming certified, you need to join our (free) MyCopyblogger marketing library to hear about it.

Registration for the program is currently closed while we focus on making it a great experience for our most recent group of applicants. But if you’d like to join our next round of students, register and keep an eye on your MyCopyblogger emails, as we’ll let you know as soon as the program is available again for new members.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Ritesh Nayak

About the Author: Raubi Marie Perilli writes guides about blogging, copy writing, and freelancing for CopyPress Community -- an online network of writers, designers, and marketers. Get more from Raubi on Twitter.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!