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How "Copywriting" Got Its Name

Aug 27, 2008
Baffled by the label "copywriting"? You might be wondering, "what does copying have to do with writing, anyway?"

Here's perhaps the simplest way to answer the question. All writers borrow; no one starts just from scratch. Copywriters are merely more upfront about it.

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, you start with an advertising piece that you know is effective, and borrow elements from it. Every aspect of a sales letter is modeled after other, earlier, successful writings, beginning with the headline.

A classic headline from the previous century went like this: "They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano, But When I Began To Play...". This particular headline has been the basis of hundreds of later headlines. Why is it effective? There are at least two emotionally charged ideas present, and probably more. The skilled writer knows what tool is required to achieve a certain effect, and moreover knows how to use it.

It's usually the case that certain elements are present in successful headlines.

Numbers can be an effective means to draw the reader in. For example, headline writers will often refer to "The Five Steps You Must Take..." or the "Seven Tricks...". The human mind appears to love specific numbers.

Another well-known technique is the word "secrets" or some variation. This idea is used in at least two senses. Firstly, people love the idea of obtaining secret information that will give them an upper hand. On the flip side, no one likes the idea of other people gaining this secret knowledge and keeping an advantage over themselves.

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 three elements, we could construct 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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