Maslen on Marketing, Structural tools

How to write the perfect headline every time: part two

Last month, we took a look at the basics of headline writing. I’m going to continue this month with seven practical tips to help you on your way.

1 When to write your headline

Two schools of thought here: write it first or write it last. Writing your headline first means staring at an empty screen for some time, while sweat and then quite possibly blood trickles down your forehead.

You could strike it lucky and get a lulu right away, but in my experience this rarely happens. It’s much better to write a placeholder – an ‘OK for now’ line – and write the final headline at the end. This way, you’ve spent some time thinking about your sales pitch while actually writing it and you should be more in tune with the essentials that will feed a great headline.

2 How many versions

I like to have three or four versions of the headline to choose from. You’ll also find that writing different headlines often leads to an unexpected but better line than the first one you came up with.

3 How to start

There are no fixed rules on the best format for headlines. But I’ve always found that ‘How to’ headlines work well a lot of the time. Openings like these:

How to save £35 a week on your toner bill

How to impress even the most sceptical ballroom dancing judge

How to win friends and influence people (oops – sorry, not one of mine!)

If you want to add a sense of newsiness, the simplest trick is to add NOW: at the beginning of any headline.

And remember, FREE almost always works well in a headline. Don’t be shy in b2b contexts either. Everyone likes getting free stuff.

4 How long?

Try to keep your headlines to under sixteen words. Ten is better. Remember, you’re not trying to write the whole pitch, just enough to get your reader interested. And if you feel drawn to words like ‘communication’, ‘effective’ or ‘significantly’, try ‘talking’, ‘better’ or ‘much’ instead.

5 How to keep the story going

As a general rule, headlines should be on a single line, two at a pinch. If you really feel the need to keep going, use a subhead instead. Like this:

How to make the perfect sponge cake every time Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p

You could even add a lead-in that refers to your target, like this:

Attention all homemakers… How to make the perfect spongecake every time Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p

6 How to set it

Headlines look better set in a larger point size than your body copy. But don’t go mad. As a general rule for most print and online communications, your headline will tend to shout if it’s more than twice the point size of your body copy. (Of course, you may want it to shout.)

And don’t use ALL CAPS: it makes it harder to read quickly and forces your reader to decode it letter by letter. I think simple sentence case looks best; initial caps force the reader’s eye to jump up and down as each new word starts.

7 How to end it

Never use full stops at the end of your headlines. They say ‘stop’ and you don’t want your reader to stop, you want them to keep reading. The absence of a full stop implies that the sentence hasn’t finished yet and they will keep reading till they find one. Look at a newspaper and see if you can find a headline with a full stop.

This month’s message

Learn how to write a great headline and you are more than halfway to becoming a great copywriter. If you can’t think of a great one, go for a good one, and that means BENEFITS. And remember, keep it short and simple.


[Readability statistics]

Sentences per paragraph          2.7
Words per sentence                 14.5
Characters per word                 4.2
Passive sentences                   0%
Flesch Readability Score         77.4
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level     5.9

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