What’s the difference between a freelance writer and a freelance copywriter?

August 11, 2020
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Words Are More Than  Words


Written language is funny in that it can mean different things to different people or in different contexts. Once spoken, inflection, intonation, and volume can alter a message's meaning even more.

Because of this, it’s important to remember to scrub internal office jargon and acronyms from public-facing web content. And always keep in mind who your audience is and how their culture or experiences might cloud or enhance the meaning. Also, a word or phrase with multiple meanings can affect SEO efforts and search.

With any business communication, we really don’t want misunderstandings or missed opportunities. For this reason, at Pybop we generally recommend straightforward, clear, conversational messaging for foundational web and brand content.

Misunderstandings can be deep and painful or they can simply trip up your efforts to find the right kind of writer, for example.

Example: Finding the Best Writer or Editor for the Job

Let’s say you need an editor. Google “editor” and you get all sorts of responses. Photo editors. Book editors. Code editors. Copy editors. Web editors.

Same goes with the word content. I know some writers who recoil at the word. Content, in essence, is similar to the word product. It doesn’t really mean anything by itself. Ask people in different industries, “what is content,” and they’ll say, text, images, programming, video and many other communication types that fill up a space. I recently heard someone who made videos for TicTok, a platform for short-form videos, say she was an avid “content creator.” I think of myself as a content creator … but not like that at all.

I’ve put this list of definitions together based on my years of experience in book publishing and digital communications. Have a different take? Or have a definition you’d like me to add? Email me; I’d love for us to shape a current gold standard.

Text-Based Writer and Editor Definitions

Keep in mind, one professional writer or editor may have the skills of more than one of these descriptions.

Freelance writer: A writer for hire. This could take many forms and include many different areas of specialty, including book writing, web writing, and blog writing. They may consider themselves a whitepaper writer, a grant writer, or a technical writer. They could be paid by the word, the hour, or the project. Most writers do not work “on spec,” meaning, if you hire them to write something, you must pay them whether you use the work or not. Typically, a process of revisions is included and expected in the process.

Freelance copywriter: A freelance writer may also be a copywriter. A copywriter is typically a writer that focuses on advertising or marketing copy. I think of them as creative, focused on clever, pithy, memorable phrases that inspire action. They could be poets, they choose their words so carefully. (As one example, the poet who writes the addictive Everyday Betrayal on IG is a copywriter.) Copywriters are usually paid like writers, unless they are on staff, of course.

Copy editor: A copy editor is the editor who makes sure your writing is grammatically correct, for the most part. He or she will query anything that doesn’t make sense or may cause confusion and ask you about it. A copy editor will provide a good last look at the writing before publication, to make sure it sticks to your brand’s Editorial Style Guide. Copy editors make you look good.

Editor: This one is broad. If you are searching for an editor, I recommend adding an adjective, like “web,” “book,” “magazine,” in front. An editor takes a piece or body of work and helps shape it. A web editor or article editor typically will not do much, if any, re-writing, but they will suggest broader changes than spelling and punctuation. A photo editor or video editor are completely different.

Substantive editor: You need a substantive editor if the writing needs … a good amount of work. For example, if you’re pivoting your brand or messaging or the person who wrote the piece is more of a subject-matter expert than a writer. A substantive editor will consider how the content is organized, and might add, delete, and even re-write sections. Oftentimes, these editors work collaboratively with the writer or subject-matter expert, such as a doctor or technology innovator.

Web editor: A web editor is an editor who happens to know a great deal about how the web works. They are familiar with content management systems (CMS), and can usually update text and images within a technology platform. Web editors might be the person in charge of collecting, reviewing, and posting website content on an ongoing basis.

Proofreader: A proofreader is your last line of defense before publication, and it’s often one that gets skipped in the online publishing world. A proofreader often will check website content within an online staging environment against the copyeditor’s final documents. They are checking to make sure the content is in the right place, nothing got cut out when getting pasted in by developers, and nothing was repeated.

Proofreaders may also act as Quality Assurance (QA), and check that links go to the right place and that image have the appropriate Alt tags, as examples. They will create a “Bug List” for the developers or Web Editor to fix online, and will check to make sure they were completed. These people have Eagle Eyes.

Technical writer: A technical writer will take your sophisticated or complex product or service and create a manual or guide to help explain how it works. They are often writing instructions alongside charts or drawings that explain a process or system. If you know a great technical writer, you are lucky. They are special finds.

Marketing writer: A copywriter might also be a marketing writer, but not always. Marketing writers may create longform or shortform “value-add” content that helps elevate the industry, a thought-leader, or brand. Or they may create specific marketing campaign content, including landing pages, emails, or newsletters. The purpose of a marketing writer is to create a message that aligns with your brand, informs or inspires, and typically helps someone make a decision to take action, like buy, donate, volunteer, or sign up.

Advertising copywriter: See freelance copy editor. Many agencies have ad copywriters in-house to help with a variety of clients. I often find that agencies have fewer longform marketing writers on staff and will hire freelance professionals to support them.

Brand writer: A writer focused on creating foundational brand messaging that your company can leverage across many platforms, from sales materials to website content to marketing campaigns.

Content designer: This one is a fairly new title, but the job has been around forever. A content designer is looking at how the messages are organized on the page. This could involve the site architecture or the page architecture. It might also involve moving pieces, such as selecting or editing content for responsive design, for filters, archives, or for interactive experiences.

Content strategist: A content strategist practices the art of gathering, curating, analyzing, and organizing content to fit a brand’s and their audience’s needs. I find content strategists come with many different backgrounds, skillsets, and focuses. Some have a strong brand storytelling or writing background. Others are more adept at information architecture, and have a history in web development.

Which Type of Professional Writer Do You Need?

As I mentioned, any of these roles cross over; you don’t need all of them! An editor can also be a writer, but this isn’t always the case. A writer always needs an editor, even if they are an experienced editor, too.

The important thing is, when you are hiring a writer for your company projects, to understand their skillset and to clarify what kind of writing or editing you need. It definitely helps when we are all using the same definitions.

Imagine asking for a copyedit, when you really meant a substantive edit? The results are miles apart. My favorite thing to do when working with a new writer is to ask, “what kind of writing or editing do you do?” They will likely give you several answers that can help you make a decision.

Knowing what to ask for will also help you get the language that you’re aiming for, with all the benefits of clarity and less of any unintended confusion.

More Content Strategy Related Definitions

What is the meaning of:

Core messaging priorities

Content marketing

White paper

Information architecture vs content architecture

About the Author: Shelly Bowen

Shelly Bowen, content strategist

Shelly Bowen, MFA, is a content writer, content strategist, and founder of Pybop.

For decades, Shelly has written for businesses on complex topics from disease prevention and medical devices to alternative energy and leveraging data. Today, she's hyper-focused on supporting B-B technology businesses. In her spare time, she hikes, kayaks, draws, and works on her T-Bird.

A wide variety of brands rely on Shelly as an essential freelance writer and content strategy resource.

Follow Shelly on Instagram @pybop or connect on LinkedIn. More about Shelly and Pybop.

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