How “Copywriting” Got Its Name

Some may be rather confused by the word “copywriting”. After all, what does copying have to do with writing?

Here’s the simplest way to answer that question. All writers borrow from other writers; we never start completely from scratch. We always borrow certain phrases or stylistic elements from other writers. Advertising writers are merely more self-conscious and upfront about the process.

This should make perfect sense if you consider the purpose of advertising: to trigger certain emotional responses in the prospect and move them to take a specific action. If the advertising moves the prospect to take the desired action, the writing has fulfilled its purpose.

Copywriters recognize that human beings are complex. Exactly what motivates us to take action is often unclear.

So, copywriters will often start with an advertising piece that they know is effective, and will then borrow elements from it. Every aspect of a sales letter is modeled after other, earlier, successful pieces, starting with the headline.

A great headline from the last century went like this: “They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano, But When I Began To Play…” This headline is the basis of hundreds of later headlines. It is effective because there are at least two emotionally charged ideas, and probably more. The good writer knows what tool is required to cause a specific effect, and knows how to use it.

There are certain elements often present in successful headlines.

Sometimes numbers are used as an effective means to draw the reader in, like in headlines like, “The Five Steps You Must Take…” and “Seven Tricks…”. The human mind sometimes loves specific numbers.

Another widely used technique is the word “secrets” or some variation. This idea is used in at least two senses. First, people in general love the idea of gaining secret knowledge that will give them an advantage over others. Second, on the flip side of the coin, people don’t like the idea of others having this same secret knowledge and keeping an advantage over themselves. Kevin Trudeau has largely built his publishing career on just this notion (big companies and the government are deliberately keeping information from you).

The final widely-copied element I’ll mention today is the use of a story in a headline. Yes, you can tell a “story”, or hint at one, with just a few words. One of the most famous (and effective) is the “One Legged Golfer” headline. It’s an absolutely true story, and I’ll point out that the best stories are often stories from real life.

With these elements together, we could come up with a headline like this:

“Blind Welfare Mother of Three Discovers the 5 Hidden Secrets To Opening a Checking Account, Even If You’re On ChexSystems ‘Black List’ “.

I hope this article has been helpful, and that you see that when copywriters “copy”, they are borrowing ideas, not actual words of other writers.

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