The Difference Between Content Writing and Copywriting

Ryan Schaefer

One of my favorite things about working at a communications firm early in my career was how often I got to write. Writing is the most useful professional skill you can have. So many jobs require you to put words on paper in an understandable and interesting way. Over the years, I've come to understand more about two of the most well-known forms: copywriting and content writing. They’re very different. Very, very different.

Let’s break it down.

Copywriting sells. Content writing informs.

There are two reasons somebody buys something: they either need it or they want it. The copywriter’s job is to tell you to buy. A content writer’s job is to show you the why and the how.

Because it’s shorter, copywriting typically resonates more. If I say “Nike,” what are the first three words that come to mind? It’s probably “Just Do It.” That’s copywriting. Once a copywriter draws you in, it’s the content writer’s job to convince you of the value of their product.

Copywriting tells. Content writing recommends.

It’s easy to conflate these two if you don’t spend every day writing or marketing. The flipside of just recommending something is that there’s always a case to be made for the opposing side. That’s why you need both types of writing. As a copywriter, the main point you want to get across is that your product is the only choice. Usually, copywriting aims to elicit an emotional response: “I need this product. Now.” Content writers want to provoke a logical one: “This product will make my life easier in X, Y, and Z ways.”

Copywriters want you to act. Content writers want you to know.

Copywriting has to be short and snappy. Content writing should be more holistic; there’s more substance and less flair. However, writing in communications or advertising needs to be distilled down into easily-digestible language, regardless of the type. Otherwise, people won’t read it. That’s a content writer’s toughest job: to make their writing informative but not dull.

Take the example below from Nike:

The two bolded sentences are copywriting. They’re intriguing. They sell.

The paragraph in between teaches you about the shoe: what it is, how it works, and what the results are. You might think that's from a content writer. Although more informative in nature, that paragraph is still copywriting. The easiest way to tell? It’s an ad.

This article, on the other hand, is content writing.

Most people in the communications industry are good, maybe great writers. And all great writers have multiple styles; they have the versatility to jump voices, industries, and audiences. This isn’t easy—it can take years to solidify just one voice. Having a repertoire of multiple or being able to adopt a new style requires a distinct mindset and set of skills. You need to live and breathe writing to get there.

However… having multiple styles doesn’t mean you can (or should) do both content writing and copywriting. They’re too different. Sure, there are people who try it. But more often than not, those people sacrifice expertise in both because they can’t dedicate a sufficient amount of time to either. They become good enough at both rather than great at one. Nothing really makes them stand out. And isn’t everyone’s goal to Think Different™?

The main piece of advice I'd give to people looking to break into the advertising or communications field is to practice. There are a host of platforms now that allow you to publish your own content on the internet. Even if nobody reads it (which has happened to me plenty of times) you're still getting the reps you need. That's what matters.

Happy writing.

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Senior PM in tech // Formerly front-end developer // Based in Denver // ✍️ : Digital stuff (product, creative, data, business, productivity)

Denver, CO

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