As a marketing copywriter, headlines are probably what I enjoy writing most. To me, they’re more than just marketing communication. They’re a way to be creative and connect with an audience. Plus, they’re kind of like little word puzzles, and I love the challenge!
I’ve also learned a few things about writing them from my two-decades-plus of experience. The following tips aren’t scientific in any way. You can easily find lots of articles online that will give you a nice tidy list of scientifically proven strategies for writing effective headlines. Instead, I just want to share what’s worked for me over the years. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.
- Write to a target. It probably goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway): To write a good headline, you’ve got to be crystal clear on what you’re trying to say. This can be tougher if you’ve got a creative brief that’s overly complicated, murky, or confusing. If you want to end up with a clear, succinct, powerful headline, you need to work from a singular target—a “main message” that’s clear in your mind—one you can generate solid ideas around.
- Become an expert. Since you’re the mouthpiece for your client, you need to understand their business enough to intelligently write about it. But another benefit to learning as much as you can about your client’s business is that the more you know, the more idea fodder you’ll have. Often, a great headline will emerge from a compelling piece of information or insight. Sometimes those little nuggets lead to something smarter and more interesting than you could ever dream up on your own.
- Walk in your reader’s shoes. Consider the message the way your reader will. Keep in mind the environment they’ll see it in. Get inside your audience’s head and consider what they know and what they think. The better you understand them, their mindset, and what drives them, the more easily you can write a headline that connects with them.
- Use emotion. Or logic. Or both. They say headlines are more effective when they make an emotional connection. No argument here. But headlines that build a strong rational case can be effective, too. So consider both approaches to writing headlines. The ultimate goal is to find the most compelling way to deliver your message. But to find out what that is, you need to try a lot of things. When you’re writing, don’t rule anything out. That’s what editing is for.
- Skip English class. Headlines are all about powerful communication. So while you don’t want to write something that’s awkward or confusing, injecting some personality into them is a major plus. Sometimes, that might mean breaking some rules. Things like double negatives, incomplete sentences, and slang can make your writing more engaging and relatable. Don’t worry—your junior high school English teacher never has to know.
- Let subheads do the heavy lifting. It’s super tough to craft a message into something compelling AND add emotion AND fill your words with personality AND be creative AND keep it simple. Enter the writer’s little friend, the subhead! Assuming you’ve got room for a subhead, these hard-working subordinates can help deliver the meat of your message, freeing you up to write a main headline with more personality, creativity, and punch.
- Headlines are like a box of chocolates. As in, you never know what you’re gonna get. To put it another way, you never know where the best headline will come from. So look at the problem from various angles. Try a wide range of approaches. You never know what will work best—or generate the freshest results—until you try a lot of different things. And don’t settle for good enough. The more time you spend thinking, the better your headlines will be. Stop only when you run out of time and/or budget. And if all else fails, dig into an actual box of chocolate. (Hey, it couldn’t hurt.)
- Work your connections. When headline writing, I try to list everything I know about the client, the situation, the message that needs to be communicated, and the audience. Then, once I’ve got a bunch of raw material, facts, and insights, I start to make connections. See how things fit together. Often a great headline will be the result of connecting disparate ideas, or discovering where elements intersect. Having all the pieces laid out in front of you helps you see the relationships between them.
- Give yourself a break. If you’ve got more than a few hours to write a headline, try to spread out your efforts. Heck, even if you only have a few hours, try breaking your time into several shorter sessions. When you change gears and come back to the problem fresh, you’ll see it with a new a kind of clarity. So be sure to take breaks in between writing sessions. It’ll help you from getting into a rut or feeling worn out.
- Put your feet up. You don’t literally have to put your feet up, although it can help. (But please, keep your shoes on if you share office space.) The point here is to relax, embrace the challenge, and have fun. You may be staring at a tight deadline, reams of notes, or a ten-page creative brief. Even so, you need to stay loose and let the ideas flow. Sure, many of them will be woefully off base. They’ll have the wrong voice or tone. Be obvious or cliché. Some may not even make sense. It’s all par for the course. But even headlines that veer from the strategy may spark something fresh. A new or unexpected way of looking at the problem can send you in a completely different direction—one that might lead to a treasure trove of new headline possibilities. So chill. Be open to the process. Take risks and don’t rule anything out. And don’t try too hard. Creativity needs the freedom to play.
So that’s it. Ten tips for writing better headlines. They may not be proven by any formal study, but they have worked pretty well for me. And if you have some headline writing tips of your own, please share them below. I’d love all the tips I can get. After all, when it comes to marketing, there’s always—always—more to learn!