I refer to myself as an English copywriter. I also provide copyediting services—which many people incorrectly refer to as ‘proofreading’. But I am also a detail-oriented proofreader. I write copy in various forms.  But what exactly is copy? How did the term come into existence? And how do you use it properly?

The definition of copy people are most familiar with is related to reproduction. Either the physical reproduction of an original or the act of making a reproduction. 

We’re all familiar with the concept of copying a computer file from one location to another. Many of us got in trouble in school for copying someone else’s work. The word copy has somewhat of a negative connotation. It’s not an original—it’s an imitation. It’s somehow inferior. Having a copy of someone’s autograph isn’t as valuable as having an authentic autograph. 

A picture of an autographed kick drum from Marky Ramone, including the phrase "Hey Ho Let's Go"

Though the definition of copy I’m referring to today is related to this definition, it’s not exactly the same. According to thefreedictionary.com, the definition of copy that applies in this case is:

  1. Material, such as a manuscript, that is to be set in type.
  2. The words to be printed or spoken in an advertisement.
  3. Suitable source material for journalism: Celebrities make good copy.

Copy essentially means text or writing in this usage—but for a specific purpose. It’s text or writing that will be published or used in advertising. Note that copy can also refer to words spoken in an advertisement. But we’re still referring to the written version that will be read or memorized and then spoken.

An image of a voice over actor reading a script in in front of a microphone in a studio.

This is likely why we use the term copy rather than text or writing. It’s awkward to refer to words that are spoken as writing or text. Copy is a marketing or advertising term that refers to the written material in a piece of content—as opposed to the other elements, such as images or layout. It can also refer to the text in a book or other printed material. 

Copy isn’t a bad thing—well, not in this context

So, copy isn’t called copy because the writer copied (or plagiarized) someone else’s writing. It’s original writing that will be copied later. 

For example, graphic designers often need to include copy in an ad.  A copywriter writes the copy that will be used. The graphic designer decides on the size, color, font, and layout of the copy that best matches the ad. 

But the graphic designer will likely copy and paste that text that was written by someone else, i.e. a copywriter. The graphic designer probably won’t change what’s been written without consulting the copywriter.

A graphic designer, working at his computer, contemplating a design decision.

That’s why I refer to myself as a copywriter—I write copy. I am also sometimes a copyeditor. I edit copy for organization and flow and to fix spelling and grammar errors. 

Here’s a question for you. If copy refers to the text in ads and books, is someone who writes blogs and other long-form content a copywriter?

To answer that, let’s look at the origin of the word

A post on Grammarphobia does a great job of explaining the origin, history, and usage of copy as we’re discussing it today.

According to this post, the word copy comes from the Latin word copia, which mainly meant abundance. It could also refer to reproduction. Either way, it entered the English language in the 1300s. In the Middle Ages, it also adopted the meaning of ‘transcript’ in medieval Latin. The English word evolved to mean any example of writing by the 1500s.

A close of picture of the nib of a fountain pen writing in lined paper.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it started to be used in the field of journalism and advertising. At the time, newspaper reporters would type their articles. They would use carbon paper to produce multiple copies at one time. 

The ‘copy-boy’ would take one copy to the typesetter and another copy to the editor. Perhaps you’re beginning to understand how the word copy has come to mean both a reproduction and written text.

To return to our question, is a blogger a copywriter? Yes—and no. If someone writes blogs for a company, they could be a copywriter. It would depend on what’s in those blogs. But the goal of the copy produced is ultimately what indicates if someone is a copywriter or a content writer.

A copywriter typically produces copy for marketing or advertising. They write to convince the person reading (or hearing) the copy to buy a particular product or service. Copywriters want readers to take a specific action. They want you to download an ebook, purchase a product, or register for a webinar.

A graphic of several 3D black question marks scattered randomly. In the foreground a bright green pen has just been used to write Call Us, which is circled.

A content writer rarely writes to sell but rather to inform, educate or entertain. Though the lines get blurred, a copywriter typically writes shorter copy for ads, websites, or marketing emails. A content writer typically produces longer copy, like blogs, pamphlets, or e-books.

But some website pages contain thousands of words of copy. They’re longer than typical blog posts. But they have one goal—to get you to buy a product or service. You can write a short blog post of a few hundred words with the goal of educating or entertaining. The purpose of the copy, not the length, usually determines whether you want a copywriter or a content writer.

So how do you use the word copy properly?

Whether you’re using the word copy to mean a reproduction or text, it’s a noun. The most common mistake I see with the word copy is using it in its plural form when referring to text. 

A gif of a woman erasing the plural forms of child, person and woman on a white board.

When meaning a reproduction, it can be pluralized. “I have two copies of that file—the working document and the backup.” But when used to refer to text or writing, it can only be used in the singular. In this usage, it’s an uncountable noun. “The copy in the new ad was really effective.”

As a  reproduction

  • I have a copy.
  • I have two copies.
  • I have several copies.
  • I have many copies.

A text or a written script

  • I write copy for websites.
  • I need copy for three social posts.
  • The copy in those emails needs to be revised.
  • Please revise the copy and send it back to me by 5 pm.

Did I write this post as a copywriter or a content writer?

It’s pretty easy to figure out. Am I trying to sell you a product? Am I promoting my website or my copywriting/proofreading services in this post?

A picture of a woman sitting at her desk, with her hand on her cheek while she contemplates something.

Or am I writing to entertain? If you found this post entertaining, your life is likely even less exciting than mine. 😉 Hopefully, if I’ve done my job well, you learned something from this post. Yes, in this post, I am writing to educate and inform. 

My goal in writing this post was to help you understand the meaning of the word copy as it’s used in writing—particularly in marketing and advertising. In addition, I hope you now know that copy in this usage is an uncountable noun (even if Grammarly doesn’t).

A screenshot of some text showing that Grammarly has incorrectly highlighted the use of copy in the sentence, "I need copy for three social posts."

Let me know in the comments—did you learn anything from this post? Or did I just waste your time? 


Sources:

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