The Cheater’s Guide to Writing Great Headlines

image of magnetic headlines

Imagine the life of the copywriter . . . a solitary figure staring intently at a computer screen (or out the window), flexing those mental muscles to create a killer headline out of thin air that will result in millions of dollars in sales.

Well, maybe not.

A more likely scenario has the copywriter looking for inspiration in her collection of winning space ads, sales letters and even the latest issue of Cosmo. She’ll also consult books that consist of nothing more than collections of headlines proven to work.

These compilations are called swipe files, and they’re worth their weight in gold when it comes to crafting great headlines.

Why? Because great headlines are constructed in certain time and money-tested ways that can be adapted into different contexts and re-used over and over. Anytime a promotion rakes in big bucks, you can bet copywriters and direct marketers will be studying, and saving, that headline for future reference.

In fact, swipe files can’t even really be considered cheating. It’s just the way it’s done if you want to write effective copy, especially when starting out. Only once a copywriter has a true understanding of what works can they take a completely original approach, and even then it’s pretty rare to come up with a gangbuster headline that is 100% unique.

Thanks to the “do it yourself” nature of Internet marketing, you’ll find people selling headline swipe files and even software programs that promise a “fill-in-the-blank” solution based on the “greatest headlines” ever written. Don’t get suckered by this.

The problem with that approach should be obvious. If you don’t understand why a particular headline works, you’ll never be any good at writing them. Plus, without real understanding, you’ll likely choose the wrong “formula” for any given situation, which can cause even a well-written headline to fail.

Starting with these tested templates can improve your blog post titles immediately, which in turn should translate into more readership and traffic. I’ll demonstrate several of these winning headline formulas that are well-suited for blogging, and explain why they work.

But first, the next post in this series will examine key words and why they are important in a headline. The answer may not be what you think.

This is the second installment in a series of posts called Magnetic Headlines.

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Comments

  1. Man! Do you read minds? I was just studying some great ads at Hard To Find Ads and trying to get a good idea for a new headline I’m writing.

    I liked your first paragraph a lot, it really painted an image in my mind.

  2. Why? :)

  3. I’ve been reading advice espousing multiple different techniques for writing both posts and headlines – to the point that I’m not sure what approaches to take other than to fly by the seat of my pants.

    You’ve got great timing and I’m looking forward to your insights on this topic.

  4. So using your headline as a swipe, we get: The [Someone]’s Guide to [Some Activity / Outcome]

    The Groaner’s Guide to Total Happiness
    The Engineer’s Guide to Romance
    The Blagger’s Guide to Getting Free Stuff

    I think I got the idea!

  5. top headline of all time

    “FREE”

  6. Liz, you’ll have to wait till next post with everyone else… no cutting. :)

    Peter, I actually wrote that headline all by my lonesome, so it’s basically untested. Use it as a template at your own risk.

    But those examples look really good, so I might have done ok.

    I especially like “The Engineer’s Guide to Romance.” But can that product actually be created? :)

    Joseph, “free” is still plenty powerful, but when so much is free, you still have to sell it just to give it away, because the reader’s attention is expensive.

  7. Peter, I think “The Engineer’s Guide to Romance” is a really nice headline, effective? I don’t know.

    Any engineer around that could help us with more data?

  8. free has 2 faces—one on the internet where it is expected and one above ground where it may not have as much power due to overuse/saturation. Question: if google charged a $1 a search, would use pay?

  9. This is very true. Rewriting a headline can be the difference between obscurity and a Digg.

  10. Ha! Marco, I love it!

  11. I use delicious’ automated services which compiles my surf ‘links’ for the day to my blog with the unlovely headline:
    ‘links for 2006-7-13′
    and then publishes them once nightly automagically.

    It’s time to rethink this service… and not allow the links to get published until I rewrite the headlines! After all, the links are carefully picked and I often write a short blurb for each one.
    thanks

  12. Brian, great introduction. I agree with Alexis, the first paragraph really conjures up a vivid mental image and immediately grabs the readers interest.
    Looking forward to subsequent posts.

  13. Marco, great guide!

    Unfortunately I’m not an engineering student anymore, reading this back in the nineties would have helped me a lot! :)

  14. Just a thought: when did we leave behind the idea of just writing good stories well?

    That’s what brings back a reader. Give him a snappy headline that leads to a story which disappoints, and you’re just doing bad journalism. Bad storytelling. And losing audience.

    Forget the quick fix. Do the job right first time.

  15. We never left behind the idea of just writing good stories well. That’s a crucial element as well. A story that dissappoints is a bad story, and if you’re a regular reader here, you know I’m not a fan of bad stories.

    The idea I’m trying to get across to you is that writing a good story well that no one reads due to a poor headline is a good story no one reads.

    And writing a good headline first will help you tell better stories. Try it.

    Or don’t … do whatever feels right for you, Brian.

    I’m sure you will anyway. :)

  16. I think that Rob nailed it on the head when he said, “Rewriting a headline can be the difference between obscurity and a Digg.”

    The roll that the title plays is insanely out of proportion to the actual content. Not saying that it isn’t important, but if nobody reads it, it is useless.

  17. It’s worth bearing in mind David Ogilvy’s advice to know your subject. Research is where great headlines come from. You can’t sell a bad idea with a headline formula, no matter what the result. He spent hours researching facts about Rolls Royce cars and came up with what many consider to be the best ad headline in history: “At Sixty Miles an Hour, the Loudest Noise in this New Rolls-Royce Comes from the Electric Clock”.

  18. This is an excellent article about writing headlines. The whole SEO thing really confuses me and is really hard to follow.

    My wife and I started a blog about our faith and relationship with each other and we try to write good headlines that are catchy and the also meaningful to the content of the post.

    I read a lot of blogs and the headline grabs my attention, but the first paragraph is what keeps me reading. This is very true when the article a really long. I like short articles. The longer the article, the better the first paragraph or two has to be for me to read on. SEO is cool if there is good content and it means something to somebody. A blogger needs to be passionate about what he or she writes and readers will come. That is just my 2 cents. I enjoy reading your blog and the conversations in the comments.