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Published on October 4th, 2011 | by Rahel Bailie

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Copy and content: a tale of two realities

Copy is not content. There, I’ve said it. I’ve not said anything new; others have said it – in print, even. But here’s more than a passing nod to the differentiating factors between them.

All Copy All the Time

Copy is all that stuff that we all learned to write in school. Well, actually, no it’s not. What our kindly grade school teacher imparted gave us a foundation for writing, but few of us went on to learn the skills needed to be a professional writer. And to create copy, you need to understand a number of basic elements.

Understanding how to write copy is to understand the key characteristics of major genres and their subgenres. Let’s see how much of this you learned in school.  There are two basic genres used in business:

Persuasive

Persuasive copy is that which convinces you to do a certain thing or think in a certain way. That’s why it’s called persuasive copy. The most common characteristic is the call to action. Any persuasive copy has some built-in message meant to convert a “looker” into a “buyer”. It can be the equivalent of “buy now” text, or a link to click, or an invitation to register for a free account or to receive a white paper or to contact your local politician. The writers who create this type of copy know what the rhythm is for this type of copy. They how much copy readers generally tolerate, and will ensure that they get to the call to action before they lose interest. When presented with an unfocused block of writing, their first question will be “what is the call to action here?” closely followed by “and how do you see the conversion happening?”

Within the larger genre are many subgenres. Among them is the news release. While not the most exciting of genres, I’m going to use it here because it’s been around for a long while, and we’ve all seen them, and may have even written them. Later on, I’ll use this to illustrate the differences between copy and content.

The news release genre is well-defined. It begins with an announcement line, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ,  and is followed by a release date and location. The writing follows the “pyramid” style, where the most important content is contained in the first sentence and the boilerplate – the description of the company and contact information – is at the end. In the middle section is the elaboration of the succinct description in the introduction, and includes the call to action. The call to action is subtle; the news release reports on some upcoming event, product release, or initiative with information on where to buy tickets, when the product will become available, or how to get involved.   It’s all about the editorial, leading to  a  conversion  of some sort.  In the public sector, the conversion is a change in behaviour; in the private sector, the conversion is a buy.

Enabling Content

Enabling content is the  instructive or educational type of copy that helps you complete a process or task. It’s the “how to” – from setting up a piece of equipment to registering for an account, to paying your taxes to ordering a passport. It’s also the text within the software application that tells you about the menu item you choose, and the knowledge base files that demonstrate how something works.

Within this genre, we have many  sub-genres. The most recognizable genre is the procedure. This has a well-defined schema: heading, a contextual introduction, numbered steps, and a conclusion that explains the success state. Each numbered step begins with an active verb, uses the given-new contract technique, and when appropriate, is followed by a feedback statement to demonstrate the expected result. It’s all about the outcome.

The things that writers intuitively understand and build into their copy comes a combination of training, experience, and skill. The difference between amateur writers and trained professionals is apparent because the training is what brings the strong understanding of their craft. But that craft is creating messages. My argument is that this is copy because it pays attention to the message.

 Next post: Turning copy into content


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



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