18 ways to uncover your headline-writing awesomeness.
You’ve got to put 8—maybe 10 words—on a page. How hard could that be?
Surprisingly, writing a headline can be an incredibly daunting task.
But then, you know what’s at stake: your headline could inspire thousands of people to read your article, comment on it, like it, share it.
Or, your headline could be all they need to turn their attention elsewhere.
I’ve been writing headlines for decades, and I still feel that pressure. But fortunately, I’ve got something to help me.
I’ve got headline-writing methods.
Some I read about. Some I created. And some just seemed to develop by themselves.
Try a couple yourself. And see if headline-writing doesn’t get a little–or a lot—easier.
Method 1: Quantity, not just quality.
You want to write a great headline? Then stop trying to write one headline, and write 20 instead.
Focusing on writing one perfect headline is just too much pressure. Also, it keeps you from developing a headline-writing flow.
So plan on writing dozens of headlines. Then go back over them and select the best ones.
Method 2: Work on several headline projects at once.
Figure out the next three or four articles that you will be writing. Then work on headlines for all of them in one session.
This multiple-headline-writing exercise will keep you from getting into a rut. If you run into trouble writing one headline, you simply shift to working on another one.
This method lets you better capitalize on your headline-writing flow. Also, it’s a tremendous feeling when you end up with headlines for your next several articles, rather than just one.
Method 3: Hone in on it.
Sometimes you’ll write a headline then you’ll say to yourself, “Hmm, that’s not great. But there’s something there.”
Pay attention to that feeling. That’s your clue to keep after it.
Play with that headline. Change some words. Refine it. Go after it from a different direction.
If there’s something about it that interests or excites you, don’t let go until you’ve found the real gem hidden beneath the dirt.
Method 4: Follow what excites you.
What’s interesting about this topic—to you?
For a moment, don’t think about your target audience. Just look at your topic and find what’s fascinating about it to you personally.
I’ve worked on headlines for everything from fishing tackle to prostate exams, and they can all be interesting—if you look carefully enough.
So find what’s intriguing. Then write that down. What you find interesting may very well interest someone else, too.
Method 5: Ideas, not words.
Some people love to write headlines that use puns and plays on words.
Please don’t be one of those people.
Yes, I know Shakespeare did it. And how many Shakespearean scholars are working in social media these days? Right. None.
The best headlines express an interesting thought or idea.
Method 6: Relevance, interest, suspense.
If you can say something that’s relevant and interesting, then create suspense, you may have a winner.
Relevance means that it matters to your target audience. That’s pretty easy.
Interest means it raises an eyebrow. You’ve got their attention.
Suspense means it’s going to gnaw at them until they finally give in and read.
Method 7: Write it boring first.
Before you write a headline, you have to know what you need to say.
Don’t jump right in to “being creative.” Instead, be boring first. Write down exactly what it is you need to communicate.
Then, look for ways to say that in an interesting and compelling way.
Method 8: Timed headline creation.
If headline-writing is difficult for you, here’s one thing that can help:
Having a set time when you’ll be done.
Set a timer for half an hour, and devote yourself totally to the process of writing headlines.
Don’t let your mind drift. Have at it. Try to fill your pad with ideas. Sure, it’s hard. But you only have 29 minutes or so till it’s over.
Method 9: Write now, revise later.
It’s hard to be creative and objective at the same time. It’s hard to be a good writer and a good editor simultaneously, too.
So separate these tasks. Write your headlines now. Then come back to them tomorrow for editing.
You may be surprised. Some of your headlines will be better than you initially thought. And the cool objectivity of new day will help you to revise other headlines and make them great.
Method 10: Keep a great headline file.
Every time you encounter a great headline, save it.
This isn’t as easy as you might think. A great headline captures you, inspiring you to read, or act, or buy—not store it away. But when a headline makes you want to do something, first take a moment to add it to your file.
This practice does a few things: It makes you pay attention to what works on you. It engages you in the study of great headlines. And it gives you a great reference to inspire you when you get stuck.
Method 11: Move, don’t just sit.
When I’m writing headlines, I have a tendency to sit in one place until it’s done.
Not too smart. Because often, the solution to a headline comes to me when I’m driving, or working out, or washing dishes.
So look for mindless, physical activities that you can do when you are working on a headline. And try thinking about headline projects while doing the other tasks in your daily life.
Method 12: Don’t keep looking in the same place.
When you are working on a headline, it’s easy to think that the solution is in one particular spot.
But it might not be—it may be way over there.
So try to think about the different realms you need to explore. Explore headlines that are funny, touching, inspiring, aspirational, educational or something else.
Method 13: Feel a little bit sleepy.
When I worked at an ad agency, people used to kid me about napping sometimes. They didn’t realize that I was hard at work.
Research shows that when you feel a little bit sleepy, your brain falls into a more creative, theta-wave producing state.
So don’t sit bolt upright, demanding your brain to be creative. Relax and feel a little bit sleepy. Have a slightly dreamy focus on the task at hand. It’s how I’ve come up with some of my best headlines.
Method 14: Pray.
Yes, I’m serious about this one.
If you were to ask me for my one top method for writing headlines, this would be it. Doing good work for my clients matters for me. So I like to get the Creator of the Universe involved.
If you feel so inclined—and a project really matters to you, too—try saying a prayer before your next headline-writing session. You might be surprised at the results.
Method 15: Get comfortable.
If you want to write great headlines, I believe you need to have your feet up.
Sitting in front of a 27-inch monitor may be fine for writing copy. But for writing headlines, you need to be sitting somewhere comfortable, with a pad of paper on your lap.
It may feel funny getting comfortable when you are facing such an important task. But it feels kind of nice, too. And maybe that’s why it works.
Method 16: Ask questions.
You may feel stuck when you’re trying to write a headline. But when someone asks you a question, you almost always have something to say.
So to encourage yourself to have “something to say” in a headline, ask yourself some questions.
“What’s this really about? What makes it interesting? Why should anyone read further? How is this going to change someone’s life? Where is my reader’s head right now? What’s fun about this? What’s the most ridiculous headline I could write? How would someone else write this? What notions do I have that I need to throw out? How can I look at this from the opposite direction? How would I write this for a child? How would I write it to my mom? If these were the last words I ever wrote, what would this headline be?”
Make your own list of questions that you can ask yourself when you’re writing headlines. Take note of the ones that work especially well.
Method 17: Pack a page with headlines.
Ever attend a conference where the people were packed into the hall? It makes it feel like something’s happening.
You want to get that same feeling when you’re writing headlines.
Don’t use multiple pages of your pad. Just use one. If it starts to get full, just keep packing them in.
Blank pages are scary. Pages that are overflowing with ideas encourage you to think of even more.
Method 18: Type them up and see what hits you.
Write your headlines on paper initially. Then, when you’re done with your session, type them up and have a look.
When you see all of your headlines typed in a document, they will be easier to judge. They have a look of equality, so you won’t be swayed by how neat or messy they were on your page.
Also, having your words in this new form lets them hit you in a fresh way. Read them over and you may find that you discover ways to state them even better.
Taking headline-writing from terrifying to awesome.
I understand that writing headlines can be intimidating. And I didn’t exactly give you a “three-step method” for doing it, either.
But writing headlines isn’t about following a formula. It’s about unearthing something new and fascinating. Something that excites you at what you just discovered.
When you do that—believe it or not—writing headlines is about the most fun you can have with paper and a pen.
Was this article helpful? What methods do you have for writing headlines? Leave me a comment below.