Write better headlines

How to write better headlines

Headlines are important

I can’t emphasise too much just how important headlines are. If you were in catering, they’d be your TripAdvisor review, menu and Fred the Maître d’ – all in one.

Like the smell of fresh baking bread, a good headline draws people in. If it’s really, really good they don’t have to read anything else – they’ll just live off the aroma.

Of course that doesn’t mean that what follows isn’t important, but without the headline doing its job, no one will ever read the rest.

There are seven functions that a headline has to perform

  1. Get noticed
  2. Summarise the content that follows
  3. Be remembered (for all the right reasons)
  4. Encourage the reader to keep going
  5. Pander to search engine algorithms
  6. Be on brand
  7. Amaze/entertain/intrigue/educate

When I started the above section, I’d sort of convinced myself it was going to read ‘There are two functions that a headline has to perform’.  Of course, every headline doesn’t have to do everything listed here, but the more I think about it, the more writing a great headline is starting to feel like a quest.

I’ve been writing headlines my whole career and I have to confess, most of it has been, and still is, written using my very own:

6-point headline writing formula that I didn’t know I had until now

  1. Get right inside the brief – know the who, what, how of it all
  2. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes
  3. Listen to what everyone else has to say (but be prepared to reject most of it)
  4. Follow your gut
  5. Simplify – no one’s as interested as you or your client
  6. Read it out loud – if it makes you wince, it probably needs more work.

The honest truth is, I’ve been writing on a commercial basis for over half my life, so most of it is instinctual. But that’s not particularly helpful, so here’s a bit more of a steer.

The science of headline writing

There are loads of formulas and common sense ideas out there well worth a trawl, but template-led writing inevitably leads everyone writing exactly the same headlines.

A serious word of warning: as scientifically proven as the many online copy analysis tools may be, follow them too literally and you will end up sounding like a word bot.

The SEO tools I use for my own blog frequently tell me that my readability needs to be improved. Then real living, breathing people tell me how much they enjoy my posts. I know who I listen to the most.

Case in point; Word’s spellchecker tells me to change ‘who’ to ‘whom’ in the previous sentence. It’s probably right from a strict grammatical point of view, but it’s staying as ‘who’, so there.

How long should a headline be?

On headline length, “Nine words maximum” is commonly touted and I’ve also heard that somewhere between 6 and 16 is a good ballpark to aim for. Of course, it all depends on where your headline is going.

To make sure people actually read it: 34 characters (~5 words)
For search results: 70 characters (~12 words)
For email subjects: 50 characters (~9 words)
Twitter: 71–100 characters (~12-15 words)
Facebook: 40 characters (~7 words)
Google+: 60 characters (~10 words)
LinkedIn: 80–120 characters (~14-18 words)

Wherever your headline goes, there go a million others

Whether it’s a blog post, product description, news article, advertising poster or title tag, you’re in a market full of traders all trying to shout the loudest – all at the same time.

So where do you start if your headline is going to have any chance of being noticed?

Now, bearing in mind that every rule ever written was meant to be broken (and I’ve already spewed out my 6-point headline writing formula), here’s my:

Top 6 golden rules for writing 110% guaranteed award-winning headlines (or your money back)

  1. Keep it short. There’s a temptation to try to tell the whole story in the headline. When writing online content, there’s also the compulsion to stuff it full of every keyword on your list. Don’t.
  2. Facts are great; emotions are better. Sometimes you’ve got to play to the baser instincts. Fear is a writer’s friend – make your reader scared that they’re missing out by not reading your article.
  3. Don’t be lazy, write another one. You may strike lucky with your first attempt, but chances are, you’ve got a better headline in you. We all love choice, so give yourself as many options as possible. Once you know the message you need to convey, write it in lots of different ways so you can make a more objective decision.
  4. Try to be unique. Most people follow trends in writing. You’d be better off creating them. The first time I saw a variation on the “Unleash Your Happy” headline, I did a double take. Quirky, challenging and definitely making up its own rules. Now when I see a bank/gym/marmalade brand telling me to “Find My Beautiful” I just want to gag.
  5. Forget it, then read it again. We’ve all done it – hit the publish or send button, then, aaaaargh, that sinking feeling when you see the bleedin’ obvious typo. If you ignore every other bit of advice in this post, please don’t ignore this: write and edit to your heart’s content, but build in enough time to forget whatever you’ve written, then read it again with fresh eyes before unleashing it on the outside world.
  6. Don’t over-promise

Confession time – there are no Golden Rules. If there were, no one would ever break them. You may read this post and still write a terrible headline, I really can’t help that. A classic case of the over-promising headline was for a brand of whiskey. It went like this: ‘FREE BOTTLE OF WHISKEY’. The small print left every excited reader with a bad taste in their mouths – ‘the cap costs £8.99’. Of course the ad bombed.

If you managed to get this far and you want more, you’ll find more posts about writing and creativity here.

 

Jonathan Wilcock is a freelance Copywriter, Art Director and Creative Director.  He has worked in London ad agencies, freelanced across the South East in design, advertising and PR and run his own creative agency. Although common wisdom says he should have carved himself a niche by now, Jonathan juggles his time between writing for advertising, brand tone of voice, direct mail, e-books, social media content, emails, web copy, on-pack copy, sales presenters, brochures, video scripts and even the odd guest blog post. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter or via his website.

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One comment on “How to write better headlines

  1. Renoy Kurian George on

    Great post, Jonathan! Reading your work for the first time and I am a fan! Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and thoughts, it really helped.

    Reply

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