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Are You Really a Writer … Or Just a Copyist?

It seems that no one really knows what it means to be a writer. In fact, some people make the mistake of confusing a copyist with a writer. 

It might seem silly to think that we could argue about the virtues of a copyist over a writer, but the keyword-focused online marketing industry created and fueled a market that was looking for this exact type of writer.

But even now that the rules of the Internet have changed, and quality content written by real writers is all the rage, the copyists are still around.

Which brings us to tomorrow's post. Raubi Perilli helps draw a clear line in the sand. Stay tuned. 

Update: the post is now live:
http://www.copyblogger.com/writer-or-copyist/

And if you haven't already, get Copyblogger delivered directly to your inbox:
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I totally agree, today I am not a writer and not yet a copyist even.
 
 
I'm a marketer, creative, tribe writer and storyteller - finally after 25 years of experience and employment my time seems to have come! :)
 
Are you kidding me?? What a terribly elitist, flippant and shortsighted piece! You make it sound like a personality test when in reality it's a systemic problem. It's a failure of many industries that we've devalued what you call "real writing" or "original writing" to focus instead on what you call "copyist writing," which -- newsflash -- is really just marketing copywriting. Writers who hope to make ends meet these days desperately wish to do the former while being shoehorned into the latter. And the two are not mutually exclusive. I read for fun. I write in my free time. What does that have to do with writing press releases or landing page content for money? But, sure. Go ahead and hawk your "next step for real writers" program at the bottom. Good luck tricking the next crop of graduates into thinking it's their own personal failure that's limiting them.
 
+Jen Udan Jeez, Jen, where's your content?  I don't even see a single share or article on your G+ account.   What's got your knickers in such a knot?
 
"Copyist" also gives a name to all the people who think they can Fiverr and Elance their way to making money writing "quality" content.  It's not making a living with writing, because very few of us can make a decent writing with peanut wages like those sites offer.  
 
+Janice Sakata-Schultze Golly, I make quite a bit of money from sites like that each month. If you have a good portfolio, like this article suggests, then people will start seeking you out.

Sure, when you start on sites like that you have to work for peanuts - I sure did - but that can be the basis for your portfolio.  

If you're also building your own blog, working on an eBook, setting up an email list...that's all gold, and things that can be done on the cheap.

The main thing is it takes time, and that's hard to buy or get, and a lot of people don't want to spend it on something that might not have a payoff.  I guess you'll have to figure that out for yourself.
 
Nobody I know thinks they can Fiverr or Elance their way into writing quality content. In fact, those sites exemplify the problem. When companies think they can outsource writing, quality work is devalued. But again, this is a systemic issue and has little to do with my personality or hobbies, like whether I read in my free time or not.
 
And Greg, if you took the time to actually read my comment instead of dismissing it in a rather cliche sexist fashion, maybe you'd find a few points to actually discuss.
 
I'm wondering about the 'work from home' aspect of your definition for a copyist. I definitely enjoy the part of my writing job that allows me to work from home. It's not the primary motivation for me, but definitely a plus. Would you say that with a copyist working at home is a primary motivation, while with a writer it's a nice perk? 
 
Nicole, love your last point. But I can't see how this can be interpreted in a way other than "you're not a real writer." The title says it all: "real writer" vs. "just a copyist." It's implied that the latter is inferior, and there is a call to action at the bottom driving people to become "real writers". I don't like the false dichotomy. In reality, there are many different types of writing, and defining one as better than another is just an attempt to devalue the work that many people do, not only out of necessity but because marketing is just as important and challenging as other types of writing. 
 
I think for a lot of people, we start as copyists and eventually evolve ourselves into authors or marketers. Personally, I'm still somewhere in the middle of that evolution career-wise. Unfortunately, it packs a little bit less of a punch to phrase it that way.This post is less of a condemnation of "copyists" and more of a call to action/arms for those still on the fence about what they do for a living (and, yes, a pitch for an e-mail signup :) ).
 
+Jen Udan There's definitely a deliberate "us vs. them" construction to this post, but I don't think there's anything in there that says that authors or marketers (that is, commercial writers) are better than each other or one approach isn't a "real writer," just that either path is better than the half-assed, non-passionate approach to the job of either that comes up so often. The fact that you care enough to write about it (and care about the work you create as a marketer) puts you squarely as a real writer.

It does condemn practices in things like copy mills, but I can say from experience (as both a person who has written for them to make ends meet and as a person who has commissioned from them for huge online retail projects) that there are incredibly horrible "copyists" making fast cash grabs, and incredibly talented writers who use them as a way to make extra money. On the buying side, I still remember the names of the writers who not only put forth great copy from those sorts of sites, but also the effort to meet the standards the company I worked for put forward. Those are the ones I would go back to again and again with more lucrative projects, even on the copy mills.

On the other side, I can see what you mean about the other dichotomy of writers vs. marketers that the "you are an... if..." construction invites, but it's also an effective technique for dividing up an article like this without getting too repetitive. I do think, however, that those lists capture some of the traits used most often for the sort of work we do when we don the "author" or "marketer" hats.
 
During the past 2 years my life has been sidelined by accidents. One of the results of this "downtime" has been my sudden thrust into the midsts of writers--fiction/nonfiction, newbie/seasoned pro, commercial/literary, all stripes.

The thing that has struck me most is that there is no one litmus test for a good writer or good writing. It is highly subjective...and yet...

Of my great grandfathers, one was a preacher and the other a teacher. My grandfather was a salesman who used the rhetorical tools of his forefathers. My grandmother's sweetest indulgence was alone time with a book. My mother was an English teacher and for much of my youth was also in charge of the drama productions. My favorite birthday present was the Encyclopaedia Britannica Junior set I received for my 6th birthday [only later did I realize it was a free bonus with my parents' regular purchase]

Does this autobiographical blurb...my annotated family tree, inform my writing? My approach to writing? My glee at being able to get away with sentence fragments that would drive my mother crazy? Surely!

So what makes me different from my step-sister and cousins? Reading for pleasure, a genuine love of ideas, a passion for words...but also a willingness...no, a delight, in receiving a constructive critique and a thirst for continuing educational opportunities to hone a craft.

My beloved uncle (who was also a salesman) would tell me, "It's not how far along you are on the road that matters, but the speed and direction you are going." A spiritual teacher used to tell me, "The road to enlightenment is a long one; best pack a lunch."

So in that way, yes, a personality test does inform whether or not we are writers or even entrepreneurs. Both do what they do because they love doing it. Neither are primarily motivated by money. They are motivated by the challenge of self-improvement and the delight of being creative. And yes, working from home is a bonus. And for me(still recovering), a circumstantial necessity. 

Yes, I did bristle on some points, too. But overall, I'm grateful for the article...and the opportunity of the Certification program.
 
Seems a bit elitist in it's perspective. While I'm sure it's a luxury for people to be 'Writers' - the reality is that copy needs to be written, technical writing is not 'writing' by that blogpost's definition but the ability to articulate knowledge and impart information in a digestible format is indeed a skill that requires creativity. Again for people in the real world with jobs, yes they write to make money, and no they don't consider themselves 'writers' as writing is a skill, not necessarily a defining role. Most literate people write, email, text, ads, all the way up to message boards, debates, arguments, blogs and even novels. But to say that only the 'paid amateurs' are true writers is frankly condescending.
 
+Sonia Simone first, I love this use of Google+ for conversation purposes. Listened to your The Lede podcast with +Jerod Morris and +Demian Farnworth. Perfect. I've actually been working on different strategies to move the conversation here for a while.

To the point of the article, I'd like to address the comments above calling this point of view Elitist.

I don't view taking your industry serious and holding it's members to a higher standard elitist. It's called being a Leader.

Second, you're mostly preaching to choir with this article because those who get it, have always got it... those that don't never will. 

Hanley
 
+Raubi Perilli "Note that the post isn't meant to devalue or discourage anyone in the writing world. It is meant to push people who want to be writers forward to find better success." It may not have been your intention to discourage or devalue, but the way the post was structured and the language used ("just a copyist") does rub some people the wrong way. If you can't see why, then you're just oblivious. If this post was really about "pushing people who want to be writers," then it would have been about showing me how to improve my writing. Because I AM ALREADY a writer, whether you think so or not. So is everyone who reads Copyblogger. "Copy" is in the title of the blog you write for.   
 
I admit I am biased because I love the Copyblogger programs and value-added contributions that they make to copywriting. I appreciate all of the perspectives of the comments as well as the views of this particular writer, even though I may not agree with every point made. However, I looked up the writer of this post - +Raubi Perilli (correct me if I am wrong here) and it made me think of a request to ask: maybe it would be good to show the authorship of the posts here. Just a thought.
 
+Raubi Perilli Also this: "But even now that the rules of the Internet have changed, and quality content written by real writers is all the rage, the copyists are still around." Copyists are still around because the market demands that they be. It's not as if we can all decide one day to stop doing that work. And my main problem with your post is that it places the responsibility for change with individual writers and not on the keyword-focused industry.
 
My husband and I are both writers, and our 35th book is in the hopper to the editor.  When we teach an occasional class, this is what we tell students:  Do not write unless you must.  Do not think it will make you rich or popular.  Being a writer is lonely -- yes, that's what happens when  you work at home and inside your imagination.  Writing is a passion, sure. But for a lot of writers it's more like an obsession.  And, don't fuss over the words copyist, writer or author.  They denote different jobs. We're on this earth to support each other.  As writers, especially, we need comrades. 
 
Unfortunately, it seems to be a widely held belief that anyone who can string words together is a writer. I say this from years of experience of being devalued in corporate settings despite my degree in journalism and countless hours of added instruction and research on craft. 
 
I was speaking more of the people who don't write at all, yet seem to think they know what makes good writing. Where I've personally seen this most is from folks who try to "make the copy better" but have no understanding of what makes for good copy. They don't understand the psychology of selling or how using plain language is more effective than jargon or useless formality. In a past job, the copy department referred to itself as the red-headed stepchildren. Too often, writing is seen as requiring less skill and talent than other fields, such as graphic design. At least that's been my experience.  
 
1) Everyone who wants to write must read.  You cannot write well unless you read.  The end.
2) The best book about writing, and it has nothing to do with writing horror novels, is Stephen King's ON WRITING.
3) You can have all the writing skills in the world, but unless you know how to tell a story and grab a reader in the first sentence, the first graph, the first page, your writing skills are useless.  'Be a storyteller,' now turned into a marketing tool, is the basis of ALL good writing.  Grab your reader in fiction, in marketing, in non-fiction.  Then, deliver on that promise to keep them enthralled.
4) Do not think that because you can speak, you can write.  It is not true. 
5) And... It takes years to become a good writer.  Believe it.  Also know that we keep learning, experimenting, learning.  It is an exciting process and it lasts a lifetime.
 
Everything was okay until I saw "sneak peak." But seriously good points made here.
 
+David Brown  -- you're welcome.  Most just comes from experience, forty years of writing is a long time, with a lot of writer pals who have walked the same road. Often best to keep the heat turned down on this sort of discussion, because when we get too carried away defending whatever our position is, it's very hard to learn and hear. 
 
Wait - You people write... and gain money out of it?!
I write often... and that's that. :P
 
+Panos Loulos  When you have your craft down, your stories will find an audience.  So, keep learning.  By the way, I am not sure I have heard the word copyist before -- language changes and this is a new one on me.  Are we talking about people who write ad copy or web copy or...?  Actually, to do that well is a challenge, and many terrific writers started out that way.  As with journalists, if you have to take 500 words down to 250 words, and you must do so in twenty minutes, you learn what's important--knowing when to slash and burn is big.  It also teaches a writer not to be self-indulgent.
 
+Williesha Morris That got past me as well. I think I was too caught up in the whole argument. And I'm loving it! So wonderful to see all of these talented, professional, and passionate writers taking a stand.

Let me be a bit more obvious about my contribution above.

Shakespeare's only writing credential, I believe, was grammar school graduate.

My forefathers made their money and reputation from their artful words of persuasion via largely self-taught storytelling...whether from the chalkboard, pulpit or sales floor...and more often from a porch swing. 

Many hours and much honing of craft went into their successes. Little of it rested upon any degree or certification. 

I know many folks with MFAs and PhDs who lack any soul or rhythm in their writing. They maybe technically correct, but their message is DOA.

I think that's where some folks (including myself) can bristle a bit ...not at your intent but how some may misconstrue your words.

I'm a huge fan of Copyblogger. I'm also a huge fan of lifelong learning. I cannot see how you can be a writer if you aren't a reader or a learner.

But learning doesn't necessarily guarantee a talent. (see PhDs and MFAs)

And in this post-Hummingbird world I welcome a program that helps me with both my continued learning and honing of my craft as well as a stamp of approval saying to those without the capacity for effective evaluation "Yes, she gets it. Oh, and by the way, please pay her more than $.01/word."
 
My husband, who was an editor for a NY house for fifteen years, and an editor at the LATimes, will read a ms. and say, "Another good writer ruined by a Creative Writing MFA program."  Read enough mss. and it's easy to spot from miles away.  A lot of precious verbiage.  Some people survive it, certainly, but learn the basic skills and then keep learning them, and FLY!   (Kurt Vonnegut, when visiting colleges, often used to say, "NO, stop bringing me people from the English departments to meet.  I want to meet the chemists, the astronomers, the nurses.")
 
I looked into getting an MFA about 10 years ago and decided it wouldn't help my writing or marketing, but only plunge me into student loan hell. That said, I do NOT mistake what you are saying for anti-intellectualism, but an anti-elitism. Writers can neither afford to stop learning nor honing their craft. +Meredith Blevins I believe +Brian Clark's classic infographic made the point..."read more, write more..." I would only add "live more, study more." And also with my own self as prime example, "edit more." :)
 
A good editor is key.  Not a copy editor, although you definitely need that.  But a developmental editor, someone who will help you birth the story that YOU want, not the one that they envision.  Again, get Stephen King's book ON WRITING.  Get the small and classic ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Every writer has a strong point -- learn from them.  Dialogue?  Elmore Leonard.  You may not like his books (although MAXIMUM BOB is hard for anyone not to like), but he is one of the best dialogue writers around.  Pay attention!
 
Great advice, +Meredith Blevins I think I've read ON WRITING 3 times. Strunk & White, maybe half a dozen cover-to-cover reads. I know of Elmore Leonard and why I should read him, but haven't as yet. Thanks for another prod in that direction.

Barbara Kingsolver's POISONWOOD BIBLE (aside from the wonderful story & themes) is a masterwork of narration. For those unfamiliar, each chapter is narrated with the voice of a different key character at a different age. The technical prowess of storytelling is quite amazing. Yet for all of the complexity, it can be enjoyed as a straight read of a riveting tale. She doesn't let her considerable talent get in the way of the story. Quite the opposite. 

For anyone interested in fiction writing, +Roz Morris is workshopping her NAIL YOUR NOVEL with the small writer's group that +Amy Pabalan and I moderate. Just ping me if you're interested. [free to anyone...I would NOT think to drop an offer that was not free on +Copyblogger's thread]

[For those unfamiliar, +Roz Morris, author, writing tutor and book doctor and her husband Dave have penned over 100 books between them...most, if not all, bestsellers.]
 
Hey +Meredith Blevins,
when you say to "have my craft down, then my stories will find an audience", you mean I should have a blog or something, where I should post my writings?

I mean, I know lots about SEO (probably not enough though... yet), and I have a personal writing style that's fun and interesting for many; but I don't know how to actually move (if you get me); nor am I sure if it's worth the shot.

Clarification: if my English aint good enough, that's ok - I was speaking about my native language :)
 
Hi +Meredith Allard & +Lori Sailiata !  so many great points under discussion here, but I want to pick up on the one about control of the prose.
That control is something that the excellent writers have. If they do impose their personality through the prose, you feel it's because the work needs it. If they step back and let the story do the work, you feel that's right too.
Are MFA or creative writing students any better at it? Or worse? In my experience, it's mileage that counts. When we learn anything, and we want to learn it earnestly, we probably go too far - radically overhauling our style in a way that seems artificial - hence these awkward results you speak of. We need to experiment, absorb, then learn enough confidence to write in a way that's natural.
I once wrote a post called The Three Ages of Being a Writer, which dealt with this process of maturing. I'll see if I can find it.
This is probably way off Copyblogger's original post, but you raised some points I wanted to natter with you about!
 
Whether here or on a separate thread on M2the5th or both, +Roz Morris, I’d love to read it.
 
+Roz Morris Control of prose... I am not sure what's under discussion here, but I'll respond in a way that makes sense to me.  I think you're talking about this:  When a writer has their skills down, their prose works.  I don't think it's an issue of control -- it's an issue of experience, and with that comes assurance.  With that comes confident writing. 

A writer can never stand back from their work.  And what the best writers have, we're going under the assumption that their toolbox is well-stocked, is voice.  Voice is something that can grow over time.  But... voice is voice.  It is very difficult to learn and difficult to teach. 

Experimenting, yes, that's good.  Sometimes it's a good thing to write the same scene in third person then try it in first person.  Which feels more natural?  Which has more juice?  The more passion the writer has while writing, the more they're going to grab the reader.

This applies to writing copy, non-friction, narrative non-fiction, and all other forms of fiction -- genre and literary.  Let if fly!  Let your imagination loose!  MFA or junior-high grad, if you have your writing skills, and you use them every day, your skills and ability to create stories will go through the roof and beyond.
 
Love this. I often try to explain that, while I sometimes write copy, I'm not a copywriter - and that confuses people. (I describe my work as narrative/creative writing for organizations, but in the context of this post, I'm an Author). I've been thinking, too, that the need for specialization - and for those of us with MFA-level training, the need to prove our value - has increased with the proliferation of content mills and Copyists. Great post.
 
Making a living writing is, perhaps, just one rung up in ease than making a living as a musician.  We all do what we can and when we can.  I think we need to stop justifying our writing by pigeon-holing ourselves as this-or-that sort of writer or author.  Writing for a living isn't easy.  If we can do it, and do it well, we're beating the odds. It's something to be proud of, regardless of the kind of writing we're doing that particular day, week, month, etc. 
 
Seth, I have a lot of respect for you.  But, I'm not certain what the above link had to do with the topic.  I am not saying it was irrelevant, I am saying I don't get the hook.  I truly do believe this: Many people need to call themselves writers, and especially authors, for reasons I do not quite understand.  If the word was 'undertakers" it would be a different story. 
 
+Meredith Blevins  Seth was referring to people who essentially fall into the trap of writing for page views, which makes you a commodity, easily replaceable, related to +Raubi Perilli's "copyist." 
 
+Copyblogger. Agreed.  Writing for page views not only makes you a commodity in the present it cheapens what you will do in the future.  In the book-writing world, a shameful thing is happening -- people pay to have their indie-published book reviewed.  These 'reviewers' receive an amazing income, and in return slam 100 reviews up on Amazon, et al.  There are certain places you do not go -- becoming a commodity is one of those places. Integrity matters. Thanks for the clarification, Copyblogger.
 
Interesting...I read the thing as a tad elitist...but as someone who writes for joy and money but never considered herself a writer per se it is worth thinking about. I am married to a man who has always called himself a writer...even before he was paid for it. And he is a good writer.   He has struggled in a world where suddenly everyone is a writer..everyone can do it....and who needs to hire someone who is trained or experienced at it.   I still think it is better to define by profession....are you a business writer? a marketer? a journalist?  or are you one of those pesky 'bloggers' who claim to do all of those things ;)  Everyone has a niche they can fill no?
 
Most writers fill a lot of niches in order to pay the bills, including those of us who have published with large houses, have won a few nice awards, and have been writing for more than four decades.  If there is a way to fill one writing niche and make a living, I don't know about it!
 
This piece lost me at the point where the definition of writer includes having a writing degree.  A lot of very famous writers did not. I guess they were just copyists? Also wondered what the accreditation might be for the  Content Certification Program.
 
+Carol Stephen  This has been a long string, but I don't believe the definition of a writer included a degree.  In fact, most people were appalled by that mindset.  Of course, most writers don't/didn't have a degree, you're right.  Many started out as journalists for small-time papers -- great way to learn to cut and to meet deadlines.  Accreditation degrees?  I think most of them are devised to give a person material for $$$ and confer upon that writer a piece of paper.  Not that they are worthless -- they do structure the material and put it in one place.
 
I think this is great. I can understand how some people that might think it comes off sounding elitist. But I think the key part is to see the major difference between writers and copyist is their motivation and mindset in their approach to writing. I've always described myself plainly as a writer,  even as something separate from what I do to make money. It something like the list says that I would do no matter if somebody paid me. Actually for most of my life I have not worked as a writer, most of my work has been at internships, and for free while working a day job to pay bills. Only within the past couple of years have I been writing professionally. And some of that work has been to me more like the work of a copyist. That is work that is seperate from writing that I enjoy doing. I even approached the work as the copyist list describes how those people approach writing. And honestly there is nothing wrong with the work. It doesn't seem like that article is saying there is anything wrong with being a copyist. But it is good to realize there is a difference because there is a market for both and being able to define who is what makes it better. There are many people I have met online in writing groups that seem to only be motivated by making money. In particular I remember one woman that worked for very low pay and said it was because she only did it for the extra money. I've also seen people discuss writing large amounts in very short amounts of time for some of the lower paying jobs because it was easy and just a quick buck. There is a difference in the final product that these people end up producing. I'm not saying these people arent skilled but when somebody cares about what they are doing and has the skills you most likely will end up with something that is better quality and worth more pay. So with clear definitions clients will better understanding of the quality of work they will get for what they are paying and writers wont waste their time on work that likely is not worth the effort.
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