How to write headlines that work

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Freddie Starr ate my hampster cropped Catchy headlines sell stories and in a time-precious age we’ve all become overnight copy-editors.  But how do you grab an impatient audience?


Writing catchy copy for a social society

Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader. Without a headline or post title that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your words may as well not even exist.

But a headline can do more than simply grab attention. A great headline can also communicate a full message to its intended audience, and it absolutely must lure the reader into your body text.

At its essence, a compelling headline must promise some kind of benefit or reward for the reader, in trade for the valuable time it takes to read more.

Back in the days when Freddie Starr was a famous TV comedian, the Sun produced what has turned out to be the beacon for brilliant headlines.  In print or online, heds (as they are known in the trade) make money.


Direct Headlines

These get straight to the heart of the matter, without any attempt at cleverness. (Although I believe all good headlines are clever).  An example might be: Marketers Cheer As Jobs Rise By 80%.

What marketer is not going to want to read that?

Indirect Headlines

These take a more subtle approach. They uses curiosity to raise a question in the reader’s mind, which the body copy answers. Often a double meaning is utilized, which is useful online. An article might have the headline Fresh Bait Works Best and yet have nothing to do with fishing, because it’s actually about writing timely content that acts as link bait for SEO.

News Headlines

These are pretty self-explanatory, as long as the news itself is actually, well… news. A product announcement, an improved version, or even a content scoop can be the basis of a compelling news headline. Something like My Exclusive Interview With CIM Chief.

‘How to’ Headlines

These are everywhere: online and off, for one reason – it works like a charm.  Copywriting guru, Bob Bly says: “Many advertising writers claim if you begin with the words ‘how to’, you can’t write a bad headline.” An example would be, umm… oh yes… the title of this post.

Question Headlines

These do more than simply ask a question: they must be a questions that the reader can empathise with or would like to see answered. Here’s an interesting one from Psychology Today: Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home? (Not altogether catchy, though!) Another example might be How Many Lies Can You Get Away With In Your CV?

Command Headlines

These boldly tell the prospect what they need to do, such as Exxon’s old Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign. Bly indicates that the first word should be a strong verb demanding action, such as Subscribe To The Only Marketing Jobs Blog Today.

Reason Why Headlines

Your body text consists of a numbered list of product features or tips, which you then incorporate into the headline, such as 54 Reasons Why Niche Job Boards Are Best. It’s not even necessary to include the words “reasons why.” This technique is actually the underlying strategy behind the ubiquitous blogger “list” posts, such as 10 Ways to Build Jobseeker Communities.

Testimonial Headlines

These are highly effective because they presents outside proof that you offer great value. This entails taking what someone else has said about you, your product or service, and using their actual words in your headline. Quotation marks let the reader know that they are reading a testimonial, which will continue in the body copy. An example might be “I Love Simon Lewis’ Blog,” admits Keira Knightley. [Dreams].


Here’s some of my favourite headlines over the years.  Keen to hear what’s made an impression on you…


 Graham Taylor Turnip  I'm only here for de beers Paddy Pantsdown    Will the last person to leave turn out the lights   Super Caley Go Balistic


* It was not my intention to product-place The Sun and nor is it a reflection of my daily newspaper preference.  It just happened this way. 


Simon Lewis | Editor | Only Marketing Jobs

Extracted and edited from | How to Write Headlines That Work

One Comment on "How to write headlines that work"

  1. Dave Thackeray February 11, 2010 at 7:07 am ·

    My all-time favourite is, unsurprisingly, straight from the keyboard of a sub-editor at The Sun.

    Talking about a not insignificant defeat in an Old Firm derby (I think):

    Super Cali’s Gone Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious…

    I have another favourite line from the papers, from an egotistical perspective. as a newspaperman helming the children’s column of a provincial title, I was looking for a question to give away some A A Milne books.

    “What colour is Pooh?” delighted both readers and editor alike. The former in reality, the latter in my head only…

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