The Problem with Waffly Headlines


Headline writing is an art, right?

No it’s not. But you can’t have waffle.

So how would you define waffly-headlines? Waffly headlines have terms like this:

Does your office have workplace-stress?

So what’s waffly about that headline? Well for one, what’s the meaning of stress?

The word ‘stress’ doesn’t trigger off any specifics in my brain. Intellectually, I can work out what stress means, but if you get specific, then I know ‘EXACTLY’ what you mean.

So let’s say you deal with workplace stress.

What does workplace stress mean?

  • Does it mean that people are screaming at each other?
  • Does it mean that everyone seems to send BCCs on every email and ‘cover-their-you-know-whats?’
  • Does it mean that the staff seem to take too many days off for no apparent reason?

Stress is generic like ‘crime’. What is ‘crime?’

Is it murder, or arson, or rape, or burglary? If you’re not specific, and you said the crime rate is going up in the neighborhood, then I understand that the crime rate is going up.

  • But if you said ‘arson’ was a problem, then I’d make sure I have sprinklers and fire extinguishers.
  • If you said ‘burglary’ then I’d have a burglar alarm installed.
  • If you said ‘murder’ then I’d probably leave the neighborhood.

Of course, each of the examples are just an example, but understand what’s happening. Each situation is bringing up a different response. And so it is with stress. If you say stress, you get a response that’s general. And non-specific.

But if you say something specific, then it makes a world of a difference. When you’re specific, you can obtain a specific response.

What you really want to get across to me is the symptom.

Something I can really measure. So people in the cancer business don’t say ‘cancer.’

They first isolate the cancer. For instance, ‘skin cancer’.

Then they literally talk about ‘moles.’ And how to inspect moles.

People can intellectually process the word ‘cancer’, but they can see a mole and how it changes.

  • I can understand a mole.
  • I can see how it relates to cancer.
  • And I can either act or it, or ignore it, depending on my/or the doctor’s diagnosis.

But writers who don’t understand this concept of waffle, continue to waffle. They use words like ‘stress,’ or ‘cancer’, or ‘pain’, or ‘crime’ or whatever.

Which I can understand, but can ‘t act on.

And the action (aha!) is what you want from the customer.

So how do you cut the waffle?

You simply ask: “But what does it mean?”

  • Workplace stress: What does it mean?
  • And when you get the answer, ask, ‘what does that mean?’
  • And then ‘what does that mean?’

And you can use the ‘what does it mean’ concept several times, till you get to the specifics. It’s only when you specifically drive home the ‘what does it mean?’ for EVERY headline, do you get headlines that get customers to react, and act.

Waffles are for breakfast. Keep them out of your headlines :)

Sean D’Souza is the Chief Brain Auditor over at PsychoTactics.

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  1. Isn’t “The Problem With Waffly Headlines” a waffly headline?

    Don’t waffly headlines arouse the reader’s curiosity?

  2. Great article. It’s amazing how often this point is stressed by the pros. But it’s stressed for good reason. It always annoys me when I’m scrolling through my RSS aggregator and see a headline that’s clearly meant to ‘tease’ me into reading further.

    Invariably, I do not.

  3. I think I get what you mean. It would be helpful if you wrote the revised headline, holding the waffles, as an example.

  4. Good example using cancer and moles. Sean should guest post more often!

  5. Well I know one thing – stress is bad and that is where dis’ease comes in. When you feel bad, it creates stress cells and you most likely fall sick

    I’ve been falling sick now and then last time because of stress 😀

  6. Bitten:

    You only want to “arouse the reader’s curiosity” if your article isn’t something that they’ll actually be interested in. If your best shot at getting readers is to, in essence, trick them, then it’s not worth writing.

    Cory Doctorow was asked how to become an “uber blogger” and he gives some great advice, including not writing ‘exciting’ headlines, but descriptive ones. It’s what’s made boingboing such a success.

  7. You only want to “arouse the reader’s curiosity” if your article isn’t something that they’ll actually be interested in.

    I wouldn’t go that far. Writing specific, descriptive headlines can go hand in hand with curiosity. I try to add that element to post titles all the time.

    For example:

    “Do You Make These Mistakes When You Write?”

    Very specific, and the curiosity factor is huge. People want to know what the mistakes are, and whether they in fact make those mistakes.

  8. Yup. Excellent article. Thanks!

    Creating specific pictures in the reader’s mind is critical! Otherwise their eyes will skip your sentences.

  9. I second Juggling Frog’s request. I want to see your waffle-free rewrite!

  10. Brian:

    You’re right in that sense, certainly. My comment was directed more at unnecessary vagueness. Your example has a curiosity factor, yes, but there’s no question in the reader’s mind what they’re getting themselves into before they click. That headline tells the reader what’s in store, while providing incentive to click-through (the actual content that awaits).

    I think there’s a danger in thinking that having a vague headline inspires people to click-through to see what it’s all about when, in fact, it usually has the opposite effect.

  11. Yes, vague is bad. Many times attempts at clever headlines completely flop because the headline was too vague to the time-pressed reader.

    Wait, didn’t I just write about this? :)

  12. It’s possible, but I’m too time-pressed to see if that link leads to a relevant article.


  13. When you always use descriptive headlines, you run the risk of your writing becoming flat and one-dimensional. There’s a place for intriguing headlines. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? If your writing is always bang, bang, bang, describe, describe, describe then it gets boring.
    And one of the real problems with very specific headlines is that the articles so rarely live up to the promise that’s made. But that’s another story…

  14. I agree with Daniel Foster. In fact, could you give the entire post another go? It reads like have had one too many coffees.

  15. Interesting post Sean. I’m sure I’m guilty of waffly titles myself, but had never really thought about the idea. Until now that is.

    The “what does it mean” test seems like a good way to dewafflify your headlines. Do you think you can ask the question too many times, though? Is there a point where you know you’ve made things specific enough or is it more a feel kind of thing?

  16. Of course you can ask the question too many times. Because ‘what does it mean?’ can go forever? What you’re trying to do (very quickly) is eliminate the need to have a headline that isn’t specific.

    So what’s the point?

    Usually asking the question a few times is enough. It would be hard to pin-point the exact ‘when is enough point’, though if I work it out, I’ll let you know 😉

  17. Sean,

    If I had to apply your tip (‘what does it mean?’) to your headline…

    “The Problem with Waffly Headlines”

    I’d come up with something like this.

    “Stop Writing Boring Headlines And Start Crafting Winners”

    “How To Craft Killer Headlines”

    “Power-Pulling Headlines For Pro Copywriters”

    You get the idea… :)

    Codrut Turcanu – “Succeeding Against All Odds!”

  18. Good application indeed! :) Especially the first one. (Not o sure about the second or third).

  19. Are the waffles ready yet? I like mine with a side of Bacon® and a heavy dose of syrup.

    I know you said I can’t have a waffle, but I’m still holding out hope. My comment may seem a little off topic, but that’s the problem with waffly headlines.

  20. I like this post. You really have to stop and think about your headlines. You need to make sure they are going to grab your readers attention.

  21. Great post.

    Your point regarding “peaking the curiosity” gives us the grit of it.

    It’s really about finding a way to get them enticed enough to get the click.


  22. Yes.. the headline is main point to attract reader..
    If the headline boring so no more reader will come…
    I will remember this tips to improve my blog//

  23. A common and oft repeated error I make is to create a headline that pulls the reader in but does not relate well to the subject matter at hand.

    If I get pee’d off by the articles that use this ploy (intentional or not) then I truly have to beg the forgiveness from my readers.

    I find it easy to create the headline. And here is the issue. What comes first – the egg (headline) or the chicken which should be the reason for wanting to write a piece?

    I often see the headline and write around it. Other times I see the content then spend a lot of time reworking a headline to suit. On those occassions I have not reworked the one liner sufficiently, it shows and lets the piece down.

    In a nutshell, the headline is a vital element of the entire piece and its importance must never be diminished or ignored.

    You have have a hook to create curiosity to investigate and pull the eyes down. The hook is your excellent and outrageously irrestible headline.

    Where would we be without the headline?

  24. Robert, you bring up two points there.
    1) When do you write the headline? Before or after?
    2) What is the sole purpose of the headline?

    It kinda depends. When I’m writing articles, the headline doesn’t tend to come in first. It tends to come in later, when I’ve gone through almost 3/4ths of the article. This warming up, enables me to write a more powerful headline. I precisely use the word ‘powerful’, because the headline really needs the factor of power to attract.

    However, when I write copy for a salespage (and on some of those salespages we’re selling $10,000 programs), then I’m forced to stop writing headlines that are purely ‘attractive, or curiosity-driven’. You see, a reader will get attracted to a curious sort of headline when there’s little at stake (oh, I just have to read this article), as compared to when they have to splurge tens of thousands of dollars. And customers today, are more attuned to the difference between a sales pitch and editorial. So the headline for a sales letter is not a headline at all.

    It’s a headline that literally comes from the mouth of the customer. So a customer may say: “It’s all very fine to have a website, but what if I don’t have tens of thousands of subscribers on my list. How do I then make profits online?” Now that’s not something that I may think of. It’s something specifically from the mouth of the customer. Customers tend to use their own specific terminology, linked to their own specific needs.

    And like Dustin Hoffman once said: “I pick someone in the audience” and I pretend I’m talking to them,” so do I. I literally pick someone in the audience (one person) and call them up. And have a conversation. And the headline comes from there.

    When writing articles, I have no such luxury (I write over 300 a year). So I have to work with curiosity and specifics. And that does the job of attraction. Which takes us to the second point: Attraction.


  25. 2) What is the sole purpose of the headline?

    So what’s the sole purpose?
    It’s simply meant to attract.
    Not to convert.

    If I can get the person to read the headline, and continue reading the first fifty words, they’ll read almost everything (if not everything). We tested this many times on a list of 100,000 strong. We’d put in seven headlines, and insert one headline with specific triggers in the middle.

    So let’s say there were seven articles.
    One of the articles had specific triggers.
    This article would sometimes be article No.5.
    Or article No.7
    Or article No.3

    Invariably, the headline with those triggers would be the one that got clicked on the most. And then just for good measure, we’d insert a note at the 700 word mark (to test if the reader was just clicking, or actually reading). And yes, they were not just clicking, but also reading.

    But the body of the article/sales letter is meant to convert. That is not the job of a headline at all. Put too much in your headline, and you’re more likely to get the reader confused and not click through/read further at all.

  26. Excellent article. This gives more reasons to why a blogger should sit and rethink strategies…it sure made me do that :)


  27. Hi Sean!

    It’s a great post! I often flounder to get a good headline. I end up mistaking vague headline to be the best fit.
    Thanks for the ‘what does it mean’ concept!

  28. Another great Copyblogger headline post, hooray!

    I am the first to admit that I am addicted to clever headlines like “No more broccoli ice cream” and “There are no magic beans.” (Maybe it’s just the food angle.) Reading BC has slapped me around a little so I can at least some of the time muster the discipline for “5 editor’s secrets to help you write like a pro” and “Does your agency make these boneheaded PR mistakes?”

    Never underestimate the power of a kickass headline on the Web, by the way. You can be front page of Google, but if you have a limp soggy headline, your clickthrough will be a fraction of what it could be.

    As to the power of curiosity, most testing shows that you have to tie it to at least an implied benefit to get it to really pull.

  29. I really appreciated this post on headline writing techniques. It’s something that every entrepreneur should be aware of… we have a large subscriber base and we featured this post on our site under the sales and marketing category on our content site Thanks again for the useful information!

  30. Ha ha.. but what about titles with the word waffle actually in the headline? like this:

    Experience would tell me that they don’t work either!

    Simon Dance