Copywriters - Artists or Scientists?

Picture by Sarah G...

Picture by Sarah G...

What Art was to the ancient world, Science is to the modern: the distinctive faculty. In the minds of men the useful has succeeded to the beautiful. Instead of the city of the Violet Crown, a Lancashire village has expanded into a mighty region of factories and warehouses. Yet, rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit; as Athens.

Benjamin Disraeli

Tom Albrighton and Martin Williams have spent the greater part of this week discussing whether or not copywriters is the right term to describe professional creators of content. While they have covered that debate fairly comprehensively, it has raised a few other interesting questions.

The question that intrigues me most as an SEO, is that of a percieved division between the “creative professional” copywriter and the “keyword-driven” SEO content mill. It’s a question I’ve tried to answer before in discussions, explaining that the latter has to balance the art of copywriting with the science of SEO.

But am I right? Are copywriters artists, or are they scientists? And is there really a fundamental division between the beauty of the copywriter and the usefulness of the SEO content creator?

Copywriters – Artists or Scientists?

I’ve stood on both sides of the fence, starting my career in a strictly creative role which didn’t include much in the way of web copy. However, for the past two years I’ve been employed mainly as an SEO, balancing traditional copywriting requirements with the commitment to keywords that the search engines require.

And I don’t think either role can strictly be considered an art.

Is Copywriting an Art?

One of the key points raised by Tom and Martin is that copywriting is a creative endeavour. That the main skill that separates the copywriter from the SEO content creator is the ability to produce original prose instead of recycling and rehashing old ideas.

But is that all there is to copywriting?

Not in my eyes. The key weapon in any copywriter’s arsenal is a knowledge of psychology. A good copywriter knows how people’s minds work. They understand which tactics will influence different audiences in different ways, and then use techniques refined by a range of professionals to produce the desired outcome in the reader.

And isn’t understanding how something works, identifying ways to change that behaviour and carefully modifying the variables to affect the outcome known as scientific method?

It’d take a fool to claim that copywriting can be reduced to a cold, calculating science, but if we put the field solely into the realms of art, we run the risk of overlooking the very process that makes good copy so effective.

And if copywriting is a mix of the art of writing and the science of psychology, can’t the same be said of SEO?

Is SEO a Science?

On the face of it, it’s easy to consider search engine optimisation a science. It’s concerned with manipulating data to ensure that a computer programme returns a favourable result.

But to bracket SEO as mere engineering is as much of a mistake as painting copywriting as purely an art.

Take the Meta Titles as an example. Every SEO knows that a website’s title tag carries weight with the search engines. But the good SEO also knows that it carries weight with the client. A creative, eye-catching title can make or break a site, especially if it turns up near the top of the SERPs.

Reworking on-site content to contain important keywords also requires a degree of artistry, as does creating all-important link bait. Dull, formulaic content won’t bring in the back links, regardless what the content mills tell you.

So if copywriting is an art laced with science, SEO can be seen as a science combined with art. And that’s never more true than with SEO copywriting, which relies on the creative ideas of the writer to fulful its primary function.

So, Are Copywriters Artists or Scientists?

If Disraeli is right in the quote I opened this piece with, then it’s inevitable that copywriting as an art will eventually be supplanted by SEO copywriting as a science – at least as long as search continues to be the main way people find information.

But I don’t think that’s true. Eventually, clients and the search engines are going to get wise to the content mills, the paid-by-the-word articles and the keyword stuffed nonsense that’s being sold as SEO copy. And when that happens, copywriting the science and SEO the art are going to dovetail beautifully. Copywriters aren’t just artists. They aren’t just scientists.

Copywriting is a skill that combines the two fields into something more than the sum of its parts. And that combination is going to stand us in good stead regardless of whether we’re writing for SEO purposes or not.

18 Comments comments for "Copywriters – Artists or Scientists?"

  1. Roger Davies at 6:51 pm

    An absolutely fantastic article Andy, I’ve always wondered about this too – both from copywriting perspective and for SEO as a whole.

    Both activities call upon a rich tapestry of different skills, all of which work in concert to produce the final product. No individual skill can accomplish the goal single-handedly, so attributing either the label “science” or “artist” would definitely oversimplify the qualities of both copywriters and SEO experts.

    Creativity is the source of the initial concept, and the style of delivery for your message. But this creativity must liaise with grammar (syntax) and content structure to provide a coherent message that meets all the SEO criteria. The moment you begin talking about keyword densities and other important SEO elements, I would definitely say this was more toward the science end of the spectrum. As you correctly said, there is a good dose of psychology needed to predict, explain and analyse people’s behaviour, and of course marketing skills to boot!

    Perhaps it is not a simple label that would accurately describe these activities, but rather, a point that lies within a spectrum of various disciplines.

    Very good food for thought!

  2. Peter Baruffati at 8:50 pm

    In the beginning was the word. And the word was God. And it still is.
    Copywriters are merely disciples.
    Happily, I got out before SEO became a big issue. Now I’m quite happy to sit on the sidelines and watch you guys slog it out.
    All good stuff.
    I just wonder whether Disraeli had any idea what crap he was going to stir up in 2010.
    (Cameron becoming Prime Minister, I mean.)
    .-= Peter Baruffati´s last blog ..First Cabinet ‘leak’? =-.

    • Andrew at 10:02 pm

      I think he’d have more idea about Cleggeron than he would about being taken out of context in a blog about copywriting…

  3. Catherine Goddard at 1:08 pm

    I think this is an excellent post. I think there is now less division between art & science in content production. I wish there were more recognition of how deftly the two disciplines need to be interwoven. No online copywriter can afford to ignore the principles of SEO; nor can any SEO ‘specialist’ produce content without giving due consideration to its quality — it still needs to be well-written, compelling, tailored to the reader, of some value etc…
    .-= Catherine Goddard´s last blog ..Why bother with social media? Here’s why… =-.

  4. Andrew at 2:00 pm

    Thanks Catherine, Doug.

    It’s interesting to see how differently SEOs and Copywriters have read this article. It appears that the majority of comments from copywriters broadly agree with what I’m saying.

    However, comments I’ve had on Sphinn seem to take umbrage at the “content mill” accusation and point out that you don’t need to be a copywriter to write good articles.

  5. Alconcalcia at 2:49 pm

    For what it’s worth, I see myself first and foremost as a creative writer, whether it’s crafting an ad or writing a comedy sketch or one liner. If it’s copywriting for online content I will write what comes naturally first i.e. my take on the brief and how I can best answer that brief – creatively, not scientifically.

    Once I have finished the piece I will review it, invariably make changes to the first draft, then review it again. If I am happy with the sound and the flow of it, I will then think about whether there are naturally enough key words contained within it and, if not, perhaps try to slip some in without upsetting the flow of what I created as an artist, not a scientist.

    In short, copywriting is a creative process, not a science. Nor should it be viewed as such, in my very humble opinion.

  6. Andrew at 10:37 pm

    @Alconcalcia – my pet hate is people making pertinent, intelligent comments and watering them down with a “humble opinion” disclaimer.

    It’s interesting that you mention briefs rather than audiences. In my experience, I can be as creative as I like answering a brief, but come back to the same old proven methods when it comes to applying that brief to a client. Maybe I’m a natural analyist, but I find myself returning to that almost scientific process.

    We’re probably both right. Maybe it’s a question of personal style as opposed to a fundamental part of the copywriting skillset.

  7. Mike Beeson at Buzzwords at 7:12 pm

    Let’s not get carried away guys! SEO copywriting is hardly rocket science – and now that ‘links’ are as important as keywords, we’re back to writing fluent, persuasive copy.

    OK, the web is all about grabbing attention, quickly; competing for attention in a crowded online world. Surely, though, we all appreciate a good read? And if that read is good enough to persuade us to buy/sign up/etc, then the copy’s done its job.

    Of course, the web has stolen the thunder from creatives who’d honed their skills at coming up with creative concepts – visuals plus words equals magic. To an extent, I lament the passing of all that, but the media, life and language have moved on, for richer for poorer.

  8. Michael Morrison at 5:50 pm

    I agree with Andrew to a certain extent, though it’s a brilliantly subjective debate! For me, the presence of the brief immediately removes the artistic element and puts the whole thing into rather creative psychological pigeonhole. I write fiction as well though, so perhaps I’m seeing the two as miles apart to make my own life easier, but I suspect almost any job can be approached creatively without falling into the arts.
    .-= Michael Morrison´s last blog ..Is it Autumn now? =-.

    • Camilla at 9:28 am

      Advice on freelance wrinitg and editing jobs?Does anyone out there actually have a steady income with freelance editing work? I know I won’t be a millionaire, but I’m moving to a city with very few book publishers and I still need employment AND experience in the editing field, and I think freelancing would be a great way to get into my field. I just was wondering if anyone out there has had success with freelancing and could maybe reference a few good websites to start my employment search? Thank you!

      • Andrew at 10:32 am

        There’s a fair few people that earn their living editing freelance. I’m more the writing side of things so can’t really help, but if you get on Twitter, you’ll find loads of people that can.

  9. Penkey Peterson at 11:30 am

    Hi all,

    This is fair-enough discussion. Few days before, i was also thinking about the same thing. Copywriting is really an art, but when it combines with SEO then it becomes science. Nice post!!!

    Thank You..

  10. Rogger at 11:51 am

    This is really a nice post. Copywriting is really a art. I truly agree with you. And combined with SEO, it becomes a science. Nice thinking.

  11. Helen Keevy at 11:36 am

    Great discussion. I agree with Roger that there is no clear division along science and art lines. I think of myself as a word craftsman because I feel it combines the creative and the the technical aspects of the job. I love writing good web content that includes keywords unobtrusively. It’s both crafty and crafty.

  12. Robin Petherbridge at 12:11 pm

    Definitely a ‘craft’ – see Alastair Crompton’s book ‘The Craft of Copywriting’.

  13. Richard Hussey at 3:40 pm

    An enjoyable post. I’m going with the craft or skill lobby. All marketing or advertising needs to be scientific in the sense that we continually experiment to see what works best for a given product or consumer. But you have to turn that science into something that speaks to people and they’re going to find enjoyable. When we talk about being artists though, we are in danger of writing things that please us rather than the intended reader.

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