Why You Should Always Write Your Headline Last

image of newspaper headline

When you write a post for your blog, your headline is the last thing you should be thinking about.

OK, I realize this is Copyblogger heresy.

There’s a lot of emphasis on writing a good headline. Hell, I’ve written posts about how to write an eye-grabbing title myself. Brian wrote an entire series on headlines (including a post on why you should always write your headline first), and he’s been known to come up with some pretty catchy ones.

But while crafting a good headline is critical to getting people to read a blog post, open the email, or get past the headline to the copy, it’s actually the last thing you should be thinking about when you first sit down to write.

Who’s your audience?

Get this wrong and you can mess up a lot of potentially awesome headlines.

Your headline could fit the perfection checklist to a T. It could be a list with a number. It could have action words. It could be creative, intriguing, ask a question, be a little crazy, hint at a secret. But if it isn’t written for the right audience, you’re screwed.

5 Powerful Headlines that Get You All the Chicks — and How to Write Them

That’s a pretty decent headline right there. But if the majority of your audience is work-from-home mothers, that headline isn’t going to get you as far as it would if you were writing for an audience of straight single men.

Know who your audience is, and know what kind of language appeals to them. Lexi Rodrigo wrote a post not too long ago about feminine words that sell. There were plenty of responses to that post in the comment section, some of them from women saying which words wouldn’t necessarily appeal to them, and why.

You have to get in the brain of your audience, and you have to know the words that work for them.

There are no short cuts. It’s not just about appealing to women or men — the question is, which women or men. You have to figure out your precise audience, and you have to write directly to the way those specific people are feeling when they read your post.

What do you want them to do?

If your blog attracts new customers and enthusiasts, then every single post you write should let your audience know what you want from them.

Now hang on there — before you run away because you run a strictly informational, no-sales blog, we’re talking to you too.

Even if you have no intention of getting sales from your blog, you still want your readers to do something.

You want them to think about what you’ve written. You want them to feel something. You want them to take some sort of action. You want them to comment. You want them to get into conversations with other people. You want them to follow you on Twitter or friend you on Facebook.

You want all kinds of stuff. And yeah, sometimes you even want sales. But before you scribble down that headline and start writing, you need to know what you want. Then you need to leverage your headline to make sure you get it.

What are you going to give them?

Brian recommends writing your blog title before you write the post, and I agree with that as a general rule. Writing down your headline reminds you of what the focus of your post is supposed to be.

But even if you haven’t written the post yet, you still need to know what you’re going to be writing about. This makes logical sense — and oddly, a lot of people don’t seem to think about it.

They say they’re going to offer you “10 Secrets of Copywriting” and they write that headline down, but what they end up writing about is common knowledge on every marketing blog out there.

If your title is going to be about secrets, you need to be prepared to write about secrets. If you’re only prepared to write about what someone already knows, then you’re not going to be able to deliver on the promise of your title.

Before you write your headline, you need to know you’ll back up the promise it’s making.

All right, then. Have you thought about all that? Good. Now you’re ready to tackle the last thing you need to think about:

What’s your headline going to be?

Your headline might need to be last on your task list, but last doesn’t mean least important. Often, it means just the opposite.

How about you? What else do you think people need to do before they get to their headlines?

About the Author: James Chartrand is the copywriter setting your business priorities in the right order. Check out Men with Pens for more tips, tricks and techniques on how to write better blog posts, or better yet, sign up for the Men with Pens RSS feed right here.

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  1. I write my title last because before I post I want to do a little keyword research just to see if I can come up with something a little more search engine friendly.
    Another reason I write my title last is for one of the reasons you’ve touched on here – I might start out thinking I’m going to talk about XY or Z, but by the end I realize the focus of my post ended up being something else entirely. It would be misleading to keep my original title.
    Thanks for sharing these awesome thoughts. I’ve got to check that headline series of yours!

  2. I agree, but it’s because my posts always grow and develop as I write. It’s always a bit of a journey/conversation, and I usually end up somewhere different than I originally started.

    So, when I start with the headline, it typically makes no sense after I write the post….

  3. I agree with Julie. Hey, why not do both?

    I have luck starting with a working headline as a point of departure for the post. Then the phone rings, I visit a few research sites, it’s time for lunch, I do some billable work, and by the time I resume the post, I’ve taken it in a new direction. Once I’ve finished, I almost invariably need to rewrite the headline because I’ve come up with a more appropriate one.

  4. I totally agree , James. One common thread throughout all those writing classes I took over the years and editors I’ve had was write your headline/title last. Everybody told me that. Many times in writing a story or free writing your good stuff doesn’t percolate to the top until the very end. This is where many of my leads and headlines come from. Good stuff!

  5. I write the headline, then I write the post, then I re-write the headline. Usually, the first headline is a lot cleverer, but in the end, it’s the one with the right keywords (as Kiesha says) AND the right invitation to read on that wins.

  6. How did you get that headline past Brian?

    Or did you change it at the last minute? ;-)

  7. I kind of do a combo of both. I start off jotting down a few headline ideas in the top of my document. Then I begin to write. Once I’m done writing and editing, I go back and take the headline ideas and fine tune into one stellar headline.

  8. You know, whatever works.

    Pros write the headline first.

    James writes the headline last.

    No problem. :)

  9. I don’t think hard and fast rules work for headlines, and it looks like from the comments above that I’m not the only who thinks like this. I write the headline for my focus, but invariably my focus expands or contracts so it gets changed – I tweak it until it works for content. I know I don’t always get it right for the grabbing, but I do my best.

  10. I often write a thesis statement prior to writing a post. I covered this in a guest post I recently wrote. As I write my post I can keep referring back to my thesis statement which helps me to stay laser focused on what I’m trying to get across to my readers. Generally, I do write the headline first. I’ve been getting better at headlines which tells me that it’s probably not something you get good at overnight no matter how many articles you’ve read on it.

  11. I’m actually with Gina on this one. I always sit down to write thinking I’m going to discuss a topic in a particular way, and it always seems to head in a slightly different direction. Thus, I end up going back to the top to slightly modify the headline. It’s never all that drastic. Usually “three tips” becomes “three pitfalls” or something along those lines. Granted, I’m still fine-tuning my approach (and likely will be forever just like any other writer). Nice post!

  12. I always write my headline first. Although I may tweak it when I’m finished my blog is more tutorial-based. I rarely start off with a video about a shower floor and end up talking about the SlapChop – even though I did exactly that my post is still about the shower floor video.
    I think it greatly depends on the focus of your blog and, more importantly, what gets results. Plus writing the headline first helps me stay focused, I tend to wander. (See the aforementioned SlapChop reference)

  13. Which came first, the headline about the chicken – or the headline about the egg?

  14. Great post! I learned a lot from reading this “Headline Last” post… I am an avid fan of your blog and have it bookmarked! Keep the good content coming!

  15. James, shouldn’t the title of this article be underneath the “about the author” section! ;)

  16. Hah James I’m guilty of NOT writing a clear headline first. I have a good idea of what my post is all about, but I put out all the stuffs on my head on paper (or Microsoft Word) first before I think about the exact headline that I will use.

    Not that I disagree with writing a good headline first, it’s an awesome idea. But I find myself spending too much time trying to find the perfect headline (I use all the resources in Copyblogger to brainstorm for a great headline).

    It distracts me from writing down my thoughts about something. I usually have a spark of ideas and just jump straight into writing the post itself, many times a bunch of unrelated stuffs too.

    Once I finish writing (run outta ideas), I will then organize and split them into different posts. After that, I will one section that’s the best and do more research/writing. And finally, dig around Copyblogger and other places for a great headline idea.

    Sometimes I make revisions to the posts based on the revised headline, sometimes not. I don’t think it’s hurt me so far, but I definitely need to learn from the Copymasters here…

    Thanks for a great post! (And a great headline booster injection too)

  17. I’m bookmarking this as “the post that finally helped me conceptualize what I want my readers to do.” And believe me, that’s huge. As a faithful blog reader, I almost cringe when I see numbered list headlines now, expecting fluff and regurgitated blogosphere tips. Recently, I found that the first headline that came to my head was actually hurting my posts because it often foreshadowed (or actually was) the punchline of my post, making my actual punchline just a regurgitation. God, regurgitation is difficult to spell.

  18. Great advice. After choosing a headline sit for a couple of minutes before publishing. Think about it. The headline is your impact statement. Without a powerful, enticing headline don’t expect many hits.

  19. I agree with everyone who recommended writing your head first and rewriting it at the end. But why not also write or rewrite a head when you’re in the middle of a post and inspiration strikes. It happens. When your write it isn’t as important as what’s in it. Superlatives like “always” are dangerous, especially in a head.

  20. Here’s a crazy twist that I have used in the past to create an entire product:

    Write the entire sales letter first. Before you even create a songle piece of your product and run into the different self-imposed walls of your own limitations, create the perfect product with the sales letter first. Go backwards. What is the most important thing that you want to hear as a customer? Once you have it roughed out, develop the product from there.

    The same thing can be done with a blog post. Although I still like to start with the headline first, as a guide, you can write the post as something that you would like to come across yourself. Pull the headline directly from the copy just like you would pull out bullets.

    As we’ve learned from the Matrix, “there is no spoon” and there shouldn’t be too many rules about writing that cannot be broken every now and then.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  21. It makes sense, but I would add a twist to this. At least I need to put down my subject before I start. So I write a headline then the article. However, when I am done with the article, I rewrite my headline considering how my article comes out. It works for me.

    Don McCobb

  22. I’m really enjoying these comments…you guys are hillarious (James and Brian)! I must say, I am totally guilty of writing the headline first. I just get so darn excited about them! It lends passion to the whole article for me! Now, there are times when I will go back and EDIT the headline if it just doesn’t line up with the article…but that is more the exception than the rule (Does this make me a “pro” Brian?? :) Thanks James for the great article!

  23. I usually write the headline first. Sometimes just a great headline can inspire an entire post. But, like everyone else says, after you’re done, that headline may need to be tweaked. That’s the great thing about text, you can easily change it. Sometimes I find I have way more to say and break the post up into two or three posts. You never know, but the first step for me is to always come up with then ideas, then the headline.

  24. I always try to write the headline first, but that doesn’t mean I don’t change it. After writing the post, I may see I have 5, 7, or 10 points and I’ll change it to a list headline. I may change a headline for SEO reasons.

    It happens, and sometimes it’s a good thing.

  25. @Mark – I have good connections.

    @Brian – I recall someone who once wrote a post on Zigging when everyone else Zags. Works for me ;)

    @Everyone – Ha, looks like we’re all zagging! There’s a lot of you writing your headlines first for focus (as I suggest), then honing it for perfection last. That’s the way to do it! (Don’t listen to Brian.)

  26. I almost always write my headline first as it gives me direction for the post. It helps to narrow and sharp in my focus so my writing doesn’t wander.

    Occasionally though, I do end up tweaking my headline if my post takes a different direction.

    Great post by the way. I stumbled it too.

  27. Completely agree. In fact, I write my title even later than last. I write my post and then leave it alone for at least a couple hours, and then come back and write the title. That extra time mulling over the title is so important. Nothing worse than publishing a post and then having the perfect title come to mind a few days later.

    Thanks for the read.

    Eric

  28. G’day James,
    I’m another heretic–a headline last type. As a newbie I was mortified by Brian’s “headline first” approach. You’ve taken a great load of my curmudgeonly Aussie mind.
    I always start with what I call a”topic” in mind. And I regard focus and target audience as essential. I’m also one of those “words and phrases” people.
    I scribble down every word, phrase and idea I can think of about my topic and the target audience.. I never try to “start at the beginning and finish at the end.”
    A headline always emerges from all my scribble. And, if I’m lucky, the genesis for a couple of extra pasts emerges too.

    Regards

    Leon

  29. I go along with some of the other posters here – topic first, then content, then title. The title is much easier to tweak after the content is finalized.

  30. I too am guilty of changing most of my headlines at the end to fit the post. Perhaps this reflects my lack of professionalism. I have lists of great headlines, and I will pull one out to write an article, but it is almost as rare as never that my beginning title will fit my final draft.

    Judging by a lot of the junk that lands in my e-mail inbox, too many copywriters are choosing their headlines more for the intrigue factor than the actual meat they will offer inside. Perhaps the best copywriters begin with the end in mind and are able to focus their pieces to the headline they chose, but for the rest of them (myself included) failing to deliver on the promise is far worse than tweaking and adjusting your headline to match your piece.

    That said, thank you for all the other good information in your post that we should consider before we begin writing.

    Tammi Kibler

  31. Great post. Big help to me. Thanks!

  32. I do both. I write the headline to serve as my signpost. But at the end, my content doesn’t always match it, so I usually end up rewriting the headline to bring it closer to my exact topic.

    What struck me in your section on the headline making a promise (which I so totally believe it should) is this: A recent article on a social networking site I’m active on had a headline that was so 100 percent opposite what the author delivered in the body of the article. I mentioned this in my comment and it started a huge, lively discussion. I would estimate that 90 percent of the commenters didn’t mind that they had been deceived.

    Bothered me so much I had to write a rant post on it:

    http://bit.ly/b56LOw

    Most said, yes, they had been tricked, but the article was worth reading so they didn’t mind. Surprised me.

  33. James,

    Excellent post. I start with a working headline to give me some sort of direction on the angle, but then adjust, refine or sometimes totally revamp the header once I’m done writing the body copy.

    Very best,
    Sean Lyden

  34. Wow… Some of you commentators sound like you’ve never read Copyblogger before… or you’re really high. I just can’t tell.

    Writing the headline last? That’s like writing a 20 sentence paragraph…

  35. @write your headlines first for focus & honing it for perfection last.

    That’s also the way to do it!

    One small thing – I see if I can fine-tune the benefit/triggers in the headline at the end…. which often becomes clearer as you write the copy.

  36. I have never once tried this but I will now :) thank you

  37. I never thought to write a headline on my blog. or I did not know that I’ve written a headline on my blog,. I do not know for sure.
    what I do is write content according to my skill . and kept trying to get my blog visitors to get useful information

  38. Sonia Simone :

    I always write the headline first, but it isn’t always the headline that ends up running. But I do think that a) not knowing the audience and b) not delivering on the promise of that juicy headline are two common problems.

  39. James – good points. I’ve also turned to writing meta descriptions and keywords last too.

  40. Like most others, I most always write the headline first, then revise it after the post comes together as necessary. I think it helps you focus on the overall message you want to convey and you can tie some of your writing back into it along the way. For blogs, I love to quantify with headlines: Here are 5 easy ways to… How to increase your traffic by 300% … Introducing the 3 biggest mistakes to avoid… (many of the copyblogger heads do this)

  41. Nice post,

    I agree with Jared that having a title gives you a post “strategy” a direction for you to write. Afterwards, definitely revise and hone to your market.

  42. I write the headline before writing a post. Because, I need a good headline to inspire me on the writing. But, I will revise my headline after I finished with the article. If change is necessary, that is.

  43. Mary Shanahan :

    Most people seem to re-write their headline after the article.
    I be sure to remember that as I move on in business.

  44. I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I always take care to figure out the main benefit that I am offering, and what I want the reader to DO, before I start to write.

    This blog often refers to the old masters of direct response like John Caples, Claude Hopkins and David Ogilvie – all of them always put the main benefit first. Because, if you don’t catch the reader right away you will not get a second chance.

  45. My writing evolves so much that the headline has to be last. I never write what I think I’m going to. I’m not sure that I’ve identified a target audience, but I’ve found my voice and message. Headlines for seo? I’m learning. Thanks everyone.

  46. It all gets published at the same time, though, right? So what I’ve seen from the comments section of this post is that written first or last, attention to detail and focus is what makes a headline that pops.

    Though I write my awful one first and “fix” it at the end. I’m still not great with headlines as anyone can see on my site, but I’m not selling something either. I have time to get it there.

  47. I like to start with the topic ,then content creation and finally title.
    Ideas come unexpected in the meantime, changing the whole message

  48. I start with a headline knowing I may very well change it based on keywords or just the way the article turns out.

    But yes, I do want my audience to do something, even if I’m only ranting.

    Thanks

  49. @Beki, I think you’ve got it just right. It doesn’t actually matter a lot if you write the headline first or last or in the middle, as long as you give it a lot of serious thought and make sure it’s effective. Writing the headline first has some advantages, but it would be silly to stick to that headline and refuse to change if the post ended up morphing to something very different. I think that’s where a lot of the “headline promises that don’t deliver” may come from.

  50. It depends on your skill.

    I’d still say it may well be a good idea to write your headline last, because the idea is firmly formed in your head, but if you write hundreds of headlines (and write them really well) then you can literally write hundreds of outstanding headlines without even having body text.

    But if you’re not writing headlines by the dozen, I’d agree with writing the headline last.

  51. I get the concept, but what works for me is to first define my topic. Then I outline, write the body and then change the headline 3 or 4 or 10 times.

    Also, headline writing first is a great way to brainstorm for new ideas.

  52. Hi guys,

    When I first start reading this blog I didn’t agree with writing the headline last. But as I kept reading making the headline last begin to make a lot of sense.

    Kind regards,

    Sam
    X

  53. I would have to agree with Brian. When I write posts I write elephants. The heart comes first and the heart of the post is the title. Then comes the skeleton, flesh, skin and polish. The way I see it, if you are changing the title at the last minute it is much like doing open heart surgery on your elephant – pretty messy at best.

  54. I mainly focus on headline before writing content.

  55. Now, I know why! is this something that support in writing and provide a major impact on traffic blog? Does the reader will be more focused on the headline than the content of the topic?

  56. I have never written my headline last. I have always started with the headline so I know specifically what I want to write about.

    However, reading your post does make sense. I will have to give this a try. I can’t say that I will do it every time because sometimes I have a definite idea what I want to write and know exactly what my headline should be.

    – Rick

  57. After looking at all the comments and reaction I believe I need to agree with this.. Till now I write Title first and after that content. Will try to give it a shot and will write title later…

  58. Most of the time, I write the title first. And the I write my articles, and then I found I should change the title. GoogleBot maybe had craweled the article.

  59. 5 Powerful Headlines that Get You All the Chicks — and How to Write Them.

    I followed your advice and now, at age 61, I had to get a cane to beat off the the chicks chasing me down the street…just like Mick Jagger.

    You make some good points, James. One thing I like to do though, is take a pad of paper and noodle for a while. I might write down 50 headlines (Elvis spotted in UFO over Roswell). The more varied the better. I kind of use them for inspiration to get out of a rut and pull in some thoughts that get me going down a path I might not have thought of, had I not has a header to work with. Different strokes for different folks.

  60. Laughing, Steve. :)

  61. Writing a headline last is best. What I like to do is write some type of generic headline first so that I know where I’m going. As I write, I change it a couple times. I don’t know if that’s the most productive thing to do, but it works for me. When I’ve completed my blog post, article, etc., I review what I’ve written again and brainstorm something eye-catching and insightful.

  62. Very interesting idea. My logic behind titles are make the headline first, write the article, then think of an even better headline.

  63. James, I did read almost everywhere that you have to write your post title first but I do the complete opposite.

    Why? Because it works for me. And am I glad that finally someone actually agreed with me. Thank you.

  64. I kind of have a hybrid/informal method right now. If I have a headline in mind, I jot it down but don’t limit myself to the headline. Otherwise, I write the post first and the headline comes to mind from there.

  65. James, I agree with you on writing the headline last. However, what works for me it to have some sort of a ‘Draft’ headline at the start, which helps me to have a clear picture in my mind about what I am going to write about. When I have completed writing the post, then I can finalize my headline – making it more catchy and interesting – and also making it more aligned with the content in the post or article I’ve just written.

    What I have learnt about blogging and copywriting is that it pays to have the headline focusing on, or highlighting the “benefits” to the reader.

    The Headline must specifically tell the reader what they will benefit or learn from reading your post. For example, “4 Powerful Tips for Boosting Sales on Your Blog” or “5 Amazing Ways to Help You Get out of Debt” or “5 Simple Tricks to Help You Lose Weight Fast Without Starving Yourself”. These titles specifically tell the reader what they will learn in the post or in the article. So, by first Drafting my headline, I know what to deliver in the post or article.

  66. Thanks for the article and information. Never thought about keeping the title until last but it makes sense now.

    When you start writing i normally pick the title first but normally when you start writing your mind can be a bit cold. The title you pick mightnt be as strong as it could be.

    Thanks again.