Five headline writing hacks

There’s an enduring opinion about headlines and it goes like this: writing headlines (or titles) is hard.

And I agree with it.

In 15 years of working as a writer, I must have written about a million headlines. But there still are times when my brain just doesn’t want to kick into gear and all I can come up with is a collection of dull-as-dishwater lines that no one wants to read.

So what’s a writer to do in these situations?

Thankfully there are few hacks out there to help you get started with that tricky headline.

Less is more

Anyone that has read Dan Nelken’s A Self-Help Guide for Copywriters will know it’s a gold mine of headline writing techniques. 

But to save you the effort (if you haven’t read it), here is one of my favourites: less is more.

Dan says: “As much as I want to make a case for longer headlines, I can’t. Be efficient with words. Write each one like it costs you money.”

Why? Because less words means less of a barrier for the reader. Think of it as simplifying your copy to amplify the message, while simultaneously hooking the reader’s attention. 

If writing succinctly is a challenge, then try limiting yourself to a number of words, like five or three. It will make you think really hard about the meaning of each word, but that’s the whole point.

Be specific

The biggest test of a headline is whether people care enough, or are intrigued enough, to continue reading.

An article on headline writing by NPR sums it up with this: “Pretend an elevator door is shutting and you want to tell someone on the other side about a story. You’ll need to get the most interesting point across fast, which means you can’t be vague about it.”

Sounds simple enough, but what about all those ambiguous clickbait headlines? They seem to work, right?

Well, yes, they do. And they also annoy people. 

Plus, the intention of a headline isn’t always to generate as many clicks as possible.

Establishing trust and credibility with an audience is a big part of building a brand. So keep that in mind when writing headlines.

Know your customer

To really catch the attention of your target audience, you need to know a little bit about them. 

Fintech copywriter Andre Spiteri says: “Voice of customer research is an underrated headline hack. Whenever I’m stuck, I go through customer reviews or testimonials and repurpose a good quote. It never fails me.”

But what exactly is voice of customer research?

In a broader context it involves collecting customer feedback through interviews, surveys and hosting focus groups. It can also simply involve looking up reviews on a website to find out how customers actually talk about a product or service.

If nothing else, it will give you a deeper understanding of whatever it is you’re writing about. And that’s never a bad thing for a copywriter.

Mix it up

Many writers swear by using pen and paper when drafting initial ideas and concepts. But copywriter Dee Primett goes one step further.

As Dee explains: “I write the key words for the headline onto separate pieces of paper. I also have an envelope with a heap of ‘common headline words’ that best associate with the industries I write in, like inspiring, ground-breaking, revolutionary, life-changing, endorsed, proven, accessible and super-charge…. then I basically play around with them to create a shortlist of versions that I like!”

In a nutshell, it’s playtime for copywriters. With an added bonus of stepping away from the screen to get creative.

Think about the content

When writing articles, consider the type of content before drafting a headline.

Writer and editor Lauren McMenemy says: “When writing action-based articles, I aim for action-led headlines, such as ‘how XYZ happens’ or ‘what can XYZ do for you?’ And so on. If it’s profiles, I pick a tidbit from the interview and go with that, sometimes using quote marks.”

This is a useful tip as it communicates to the reader what to expect from the article. 

For example, if they are looking to be informed, then an action-led headline might be more appealing. Whereas if they want to be entertained, a headline with an enticing quote might be more up their street.

The trick is in knowing who you’re writing for and then tailoring the headline for them.

So there you go, five tips to transform headlines from ‘meh’ to ‘ tell me more’.

Originally published on


Cover photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

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