Writing 101: Copywriting & Technical Writing


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Any freelance writer browsing through the available jobs on Freelancer.com has probably seen dozens—if not hundreds—of job ads that require either technical writing or copywriting skills. If you haven't been in the professional writing business long enough, you may not have had the proper training or experience to distinguish between the two styles. And while you might think that "writing is writing!" it's important to distinguish the two, as they require a completely different style and frame of mind.

Here are the most important distinctions:

Copywriting

Copywriting is usually tied to the creation of marketing assets and collaterals such as brochures and flyers, press releases, advertisements, and even product packaging. No matter the purpose, these types of content share one purpose: they're designed to persuade.

If you look at the examples above, they're all trying to persuade a particular type of audience into doing something. Press releases are created to persuade its audience (usually, members of the press) that the announcement is newsworthy. Brochures and advertisements are designed to persuade potential customers to buy something. The copy found on a product's exterior packaging is designed to persuade a buyer that "This is the product you want to buy!" (Additionally, some products also have more materials inside the box with copy that's still persuading its owner that "You bought the right product!")

The essence of copywriting is based on evoking an emotion, usually with more creative descriptions and statements created to, again, persuade its target audience. If you break down marketing and advertising copy, it always goes something like this: This is what you want. This is why it's important. You need this. This is the best. 

Technical Writing

Technical writing is always done to explain something to its audience. Strictly speaking, it should not be done to try to convince anyone about anything—this is its most distinct difference from copywriting. It's all about facts and processes, and is usually tied to user manuals, terms and conditions, contracts, and other types of technical documents or strictly informative content that are designed to provide its reader with the facts, or detail a process.

When tasked to do technical writing, one should go straight to the point, and if a technical document requires an introduction, it should only contain what it's for or a simplified breakdown of the content that follows the intro. This document details how to do this thing. This explains the operation of this product. It's certainly not written to convince, persuade, entertain, or evoke any emotion, so skip on the flowery words and statements when tasked to do this.

 

While there are instances where copywriting and technical writing can intersect, copywriting and technical writing should be thought of as two mutually exclusive forms of writing, since they have a different audience, and are created for different purposes. (Additionally, they're also different from content writing, which can be designed to entertain, or news writing, which is designed to inform.)

When buying a product such as a smartphone, think of copywriters as the ones responsible for the content outside the box and the supplemental marketing material inside the package, and technical writers as the ones responsible for creating the manual and terms and conditions. 

A client who needs a technical document expects that the writer understands what that entails, and the same goes for a client who needs a copywriter. With that said, any writer with the right mindset can handle both types of jobs—just remember not to combine both if a client asks for one or the other. 

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Sean is a professional tech journalist and editor with more than a decade of experience covering consumer tech and information security for both print and online publications. He currently works for an IT security company by day and freelances at night.

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