10 Tips for Writing Better Headlines

a closeup shot of pile of newspapers

Creating killer headlines is an essential to writing for the web.  Here are ten tips to get you started.

1. Don’t forget the message that needs to be conveyed. Start with writing a headline that is as straightforward and clear as possible. Then you can get clever in subsequent versions.

2.  Never write just one headline—it’s a sure-fire way to shut down your creativity.  Write at least ten headlines and then choose your best one.

3.  Keep it brief:  10 words or less. 8 is better. 6 is best.

4. Don’t show and tell. You might be matching your words with a visual. Don’t say exactly what’s going on in the visual — let the visual speak for itself. Write something to complement it.

5. Stay positive. Negative messages in headlines turn readers off.

6. Don’t forget subheads. They’re there when you need them.

7. Don’t use more then one 3-syllable in a headline—simple is better.

8. If possible, try to weave in a few keywords into your headline. This can help with SEO.

9. Do not repeat a sentence that is in the paragraph below. It’s annoying.

10. When you have a draft of your headline, enter the phrase into a search engine and compare the results. Obviously you don’t want the same headline as one of your competitors.

Improv Tips for Copywriters

In her best-selling memoir Bossy Pants, Tina Fey devotes an entire chapter to the “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.” There is a reason for her praise (which has nothing to do with weight control)—Fey credits much of her success in TV her ability to improvise; to listen and build ideas with
other people, and to take risks both creatively and personally. Apparently she isn’t the only high profile person to utilize this non-traditional approach. The New York Times recently published a feature about how Twitter’s unconventional CEO Dick Costolo uses improv in the running of his billion-plus dollar company. Before becoming involved in the tech world he was a comedian and improviser.

Having recently completed an Improv course at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York City, I can tell you that besides the thrill of performing without a script, improv teaches skills that translate quite well into the often hectic and competitive worlds that the copywriter inhabits.

Here is some of what I learned.

1. Be brave even when you are unsure. Clients and creative directors and bosses want you to deliver ideas with enthusiasm and passion. Throw something out there and do it with authority. And don’t be defensive if they don’t go for it. Have a back-up.

2. Look people in the eye, especially when they are speaking. Acknowledge them.

3. Listen. I can’t tell you how many “brainstorm” meetings I have been at where people talk over one another. Or worse, the creative try to out cool one another. Here is what you should do instead: when someone in the room throws out an idea, say, “That’s a great idea. What if we take that same theme and add X.” Not only do you make your coworker feel good about him or herself, you also act as a leader. It’s a good way to get a promotion.

4. Don’t be afraid to look like an asshole. Great ideas come from people taking risks.

5. If you are stuck, start with the stupidest ideas first. Trying to be smart often gets in the way of good work.

Website Copy Case Study: Who Wants to Be a PBS Insider?

Look what I found at PBS.org.  This is an example of Web site copy that serves neither its brand nor its purpose.  It is, in fact, bad copy.  Not because it is poorly written, but because it doesn’t understand the user.

example of a "join the club message"

First of all, the message “Become a PBS Insider” is off-brand for the public supported broadcaster.  The very point of PBS is that it’s free, quality programming for everyone without commercials.  It’s the antithesis of exclusive.  I get that they are going for an aspirational, emotional message, which I would applaud, except that it’s not right for the audience.

Secondly, the offer needlessly over-promises.   Consider the descriptive text “Get the inside scoop on what’s happening at PBS.  Receive monthly updates, gain access to PBS exclusives and more!” This copy oversells something that does not need to be oversold.  I bet people who go to PBS.org would be delighted to receive a free monthly email reminding them of new series, favorite shows and schedules, without some promise of “PBS exclusives,” which if experience serves me correctly, is something completely meaningless.  I would argue that even offering all this might turn people away, particularly PBS viewers as it reeks of such a strong sales message.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the header confuses the user.  As we know, people scan websites, meaning that all headers need to be clear and concise in order to register.  “Become a PBS Insider” doesn’t tell me enough to read further.   A more appropriate title would be” “Sign Up for Monthly Email”

Copywriters, marketing directors and content managers please pay more attention to your copy.  Your users will thank you.