Headline Writing 101: An Alternative to Hacking and Lacking

Posted By on February 12, 2012

I’ve been an advertising creative director for more than thirty years so I’ve seen plenty of great headlines. There’s a snap and crackle to a solid headline; a good one makes you smile; the truly great ones make you sit up to read more. Unfortunately, the blogosphere settles for a lot of lank and dank heads that lie spineless on the page. If you want to get read, the single-most important thing you can do is improve the way you get attention.

What’s the role of cleverness in a headline?

An example of an attention-getter headline (dare you not to click this one)!


Copyblogger says to avoid cleverness in heads and I say, “Bunk!” A headline that plays with language is a time-honored enticement to the reader to read more. It’s a sign that the reader is in good hands with this writer. Typically, an attempt at cleverness has to be vetted by someone other than you (that’s why they pay me the big bucks as a Creative Director). Shop the headline in question around to your friends and ask,” Do you get it? Does it make you want to read more?” If people laugh, smile or nod, you’re golden. If they squint or wrinkle their foreheads, try again.

Figure out the takeaway before you write a headline

An example of a straightforward “how-to” headline that does heavy lifting.

Many headlines fail because they don’t help the reader decide if they want to read more. A headline that sums up the subject matter will always trump an oblique attempt to be clever. Before you write a headline, do a pre-write on the single most important thing you want to say. If you know what the reader will take away, that’s the standard you’ll apply when you choose the best headline.

Collect good headlines and emulate them

Gawker.com is a great resource for headlines. So is Lifehacker.com.

There’s a reason newspapers typically have one person write the article headlines. Writing headlines is an art that requires creativity, the art of compression and an understanding of what grabs attention. On your way to becoming a better headline writer, start collecting good examples. Study how ads and article heads work. Then use them as a guide when you write your own. And remember, the headline writers at newspapers and the Creative Directors at ad agencies who vet all concepts get paid a lot to learn this skill. It’ll pay off for you too.

Short is better than long, unless long is better than short.

Here’s The Write Practice in action with a clever approach to punctuation.

I’ve seen plenty of great three-word headlines and I’ve seen three LINE headlines that knocked my socks off. Good headlines can be any length, as long as they speak to the reader and pull them in. A short headline is revered by art directors the world over; but a long headline can often provide a compelling thought that shows writers at their most engaging and persuasive. I used to tell my copywriters to expand their repertoire with all types of heads: screamers, word play, puns, alliteration, full paragraphs, story-forms, and even none at all (the visual does the work). All the tricks of language are at your disposal; in this, headline writing is no different than fiction and nonfiction. It’s just a specific form of writing with a job to do.

Headlines take time and effort

Take it from an experienced advertising copywriter: the first headline you write is rarely the best you can do. Brainstorm a list of options without judgment and don’t pick the one you’re going to use till the end. If you have time, leave the list and come back to it with fresh eyes. (This is the Two Pens approach in action: first, you generate, then you edit.)

Two Pens teaches a great class on headline writing that involves a lot of hands-on practice. We’d love to come into your organization and get you headed in the right direction. Leave a comment or email me here if you’d like someone to vet your ideas.