Don’t Do These 12 Things
When Writing Headlines

stop sign

Sure, we talk a lot about the rules for writing great headlines here at Copyblogger, but what if you’re still doing it wrong? Are there a collection of common mistakes that bloggers and content marketers make with their headlines — mistakes that we can help you overcome?

Yep.

Fact is, you can get all of the fundamentals right and still end up with a lousy headline. Sometimes, the only way to improve isn’t being told what to do… it’s being told what not to do.

With that in mind, here are a dozen don’ts to help keep you on track:

1. Don’t be original

I know, I know. It’s hard to get excited about writing another “How to _______” or “21 Ways to _______.” Not because the templates don’t work, but because it just feels… tired. How are you supposed to keep your writing fresh if you’re using the same old shtick?

Simple: you broaden your source material.

When Brian published those headline templates, he never intended for anyone to believe they were the only templates that work. The best bloggers are always on the lookout for a new template to use in their headlines. You can get them anywhere, from the cover of Cosmo, to the front page of Digg, and from other popular bloggers.

The only time to experiment with new headlines is when you know you’ve truly mastered the fundamentals, and almost every headline you write is a hit. Until then, keep stealing the best ideas of others (just do it from a wider range of sources).

2. Don’t blend in

You also need to consider what your audience is used to.

For a while, longish magazine-style headlines stood out within the blogging niche because no one had used them before. Nowadays though, they’re common, and we’re starting to see the effectiveness decline. That’s why you see me experimenting with shorter versions of the same templates (examples here, here, and here).

Will the same be true for your niche? No, not necessarily. The point isn’t that long or short headlines are better. It’s that you need to zig when others zag. You still use the same principles and templates. Just modify them so that they stand out to your audience.

3. Don’t be clever

Brian has talked about this before, but it deserves bringing up again. Compared to clear, direct headlines, clever ones lose almost every time. Whenever you find yourself coming up with a pun, joke, or allusion, stop. You’re killing your blog post.

Again, sounds like less fun, but that’s the price of wanting a large audience. If you try to be clever, too many people are not going to get it. Sorry.

4. Don’t get desperate

All of us have seen desperate headlines. It’s like the writer knows you don’t care what they are talking about, so they write the most off-the-wall headline that they can possibly think of, hoping that it will shock you into clicking. It’s sad… and ineffective.

But don’t look down your nose at it, thinking it’ll never happen to you. It will. Every time you write a post, ask yourself, “Is this headline begging for attention? Or does it demand it?” One day, it’ll be the former, and if you’re smart, you will stomp your newborn headline to death before anyone reads it but you.

5. Don’t ignore your readers

You can write the best post in the universe, but if it’s about a topic your audience doesn’t care about, then it’s going to flop. The first step in writing any headline is considering what topics your audience is interested in, and then crafting the headline around that interest, not the other way around. There are no exceptions to this rule.

6. Don’t ignore your peers

The tough part about growing a blog is that you have more than one master. Impressing your readers with a perfectly crafted headline isn’t enough. If you want any links, you also have to impress the other bloggers in your niche.

My advice: after you consider what your readers are interested in, take some time to think about what other bloggers in your niche will link to. Then craft your headline with them in mind.

7. Don’t ignore social media

The same advice is true for social media. If you want traffic from Twitter, StumbleUpon, or Delicious, you need to think about that audience when you’re writing your headline.

With Delicious, for instance, you’ll see a lot of list posts like 20 New Best WordPress Themes and 77 Ways to Cultivate Your Garden. That’s because Delicious is a bookmarking site, and list posts are inherently bookmarkable. If you’re targeting a post at Delicious then, using a list-style headline is probably a good idea. It’s what that audience is looking for.

What most beginning bloggers do though is the opposite. They write a post, and then they try to figure out where to promote it. Big mistake. You need to target social media from the very beginning, and the beginning is your headline.

8. Don’t ignore your personal style

We’ve all heard that you have to tailor your headlines to your audience, but what about also fitting that headline into your own personal voice?

In my experience, this is often the difference between a mediocre headline and a great one. I can spot a Naomi Dunford or Brian Clark headline without even clicking on the post — because it’s uniquely them.

Could your readers say the same about your own headlines? Or are you just rehashing the same old templates without adapting them to your personal style?

9. Don’t ask for opinions

When struggling to choose a headline, you might be tempted to ask a friend for their opinion on which one would be best. But don’t. In my experience, friends usually pick whichever headline is the most clever or funny, not the one that’s best suited for your audience.

The only exception to this rule is if your friends are copywriters who know something about your audience. They might be able to give you some direction. Even then though, it’s still iffy. For the most part, writing headlines is something you have to learn how to do on your own. Get used to it.

10. Don’t settle

Remember the first Harry Potter book, where Harry gets his wand?

Ollivander hands him wand after wand, allowing him to hold it only for a moment before snatching it back because the connection isn’t quite right. It’s only when Harry picks up the perfect wand that it bursts into magic, proving that he’s chosen the right one.

Writing headlines works the same way. Call me romantic, but I believe there is a special relationship between an idea and its headline. You’ll come up with lots of headlines that might work, but the difference between the perfect headline and a workable one is the difference between holding magic in your hand or just another stick of dead wood.

My advice: go for the magic.

11. Don’t sweat the failures

The worst part about writing headlines is your failures are public. You’ll publish a post and there will be… nothing. No comments, no links, no adoring emails from your readers; just a fat, ugly headline sitting on your home page, proving to the world that you screwed up.

It’s embarrassing, but the good news is no will care as much as you. You need only remember one word to keep yourself moving: Next.

12. Don’t ask too much

What I’m about to say is going to sound like hypocrisy, so give me a moment to explain.

Headlines aren’t everything.

Yes, I know we just finished a whole post about the importance of great headlines. Yes, I know we pitch them as the closest thing you’ll ever find to a magic bullet in copywriting. Yes, I believe you should study them with all the fervor of a Southern Baptist Bible scholar.

But will they make you famous all by their lonesome?

Well… no.

Because you see, writing a great blog post is like running a relay race. Your headline starts the race, but then it passes the baton to your opening paragraph, and its job is done. Sure, it’s important to start the race well, but if the next guy falls on his face, then how well the first guy did doesn’t much matter, does it? Every piece has to do its part.

So don’t expect too much from your headlines. They’re just the beginning.

Fortunately, we talk about everything else here at Copyblogger too. If you haven’t yet, you really should sign up for free updates for all of the crazy copywriting goodness we send out on a daily basis.

Oh, and follow me on Twitter too. You never know when I might get uppity and decide to remix some headlines for Copyblogger subscribers… (hint, hint).

Bookmark this post on Delicious for future reference.

About the Author: Jon Morrow is the Associate Editor of Copyblogger and Cofounder of Partnering Profits.

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Comments

  1. Great advice, but you’re killing me! :) I’m just about to write my latest post about how you loss track of the music when you’re really feeling the dance of Argentine Tango. I was going to call it The Tango Stole My Ears!, but now I’m double-guessing myself. Any suggestions?

    Pete
    The Tango Notebook

  2. “The Tango Stole My Ears” is an attempt to be clever. Don’t do it. How about “How to Lose Yourself in the Argentine Tango” or “The Music vs. The Dance: Will the Tango Win?” or “Lose Yourself in the Tango? Here’s Why It’s a Good Thing.”

  3. What about “The Day The Music Died?”

    :)

  4. I don’t disagree with any of this.

  5. Life is full of choices. 5 minutes until the post launches. What will it be, Pete? :)

  6. I’m truly humbled, y’all. I can be taught! I’m about to hit the publish button. And the winner is…

    Thanks, everyone!

    Pete | The Tango Notebook

  7. I LOVE this blog

  8. Don’t stop. :)

  9. Great tips – but I love the last comment from Michael – don’t stop – that’s what we all need to hear.

  10. I so agree the headline is important, and they’re just the beginning. And, comments alone is not the final measure or success. Sometimes a post with few comments doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Oddly, some of my most popular blog posts (based on traffic and sharing and links) have no or few comments.

    One of my most popular posts, boringly but accurately entitled “Business Letter and Business Email Salutations”(http://blog.instructionalsolutions.com/2009/02/12/business-letter-and-business-email-salutations/) gets hundreds of visitors a day, but few comments.

    This has made me assume that a blog post can be very valuable to readers, even if it’s not commented on much. An accurate headline, traffic and sharing seem to be most important benchmarks for identifying if a post helps my readers.

  11. Extremely useful information! These are tips I can use right away to make myself a better blogger. Good thing I’m finding this at the beginning of my career.

    Thanks for the help! Keep writing great stuff like this…

  12. Mary,

    A post I wrote this past weekend generated a one page email response to my inbox rather than a comment. When I asked why the person didn’t just post it to the blog, they said they didn’t know how. So, it’s possibly that many of the people that find your posts helpful, as obvious as it may be to leave a comment, simply don’t know how. This is an extreme case, I know, yet it’s possible.

  13. I personally believe that headlines should be witty and personal.

  14. I like #10. Then again, I’m a romantic and an idealist. :)

  15. Jaky,

    I think so, too! But… I believe Jon is right about keeping them tame if you don’t already have a faithful audience, so as to not deter them from your site. Other than that, if you’re posting only for your people, work the witty, Jaky!

  16. Good, you showed us that you were writing this for a Delicious following.

  17. The points are fabulous Jonathan, thank you! When I first starting blogging I loved coming up with creative titles for my posts. However as you mentioned, and through experience, I’ve found that the ones with straightforward titles are the most popular.

  18. I don’t know…it all sounds good in theory, but to me it sounds like not trying to do all these things causes you to lose your authenticity in the process and end up always 2nd guessing yourself.

  19. I like no 3. Sometimes it comes out as too condescending when you try to be clever.

  20. @Nathan, I see what you’re saying, but I don’t agree. Authenticity isn’t the same as lack of competence. It’s common to feel a little odd when you first start working with copywriting technique, but it’s just a matter of practice. Trust me, we can be authentic and genuine while still employing the smartest persuasive tactics available.

  21. I have started reading the Digg homepage daily with the theory and hope that by immersing my mind in good headlines on a daily basis, I’ll some how soak in the ability to write more effective headlines.

    You’re right, headlines are by no means everything. But as a blogger… it’s painful to write a great post and yet not feel completely confident about your headline.

    I happen to believe we absolutely know when our headline is good or not. If I can spot a headline in my reader and say “it sucks,” and spot another one and say, “it’s awesome,” then I know when my headlines suck or when they are awesome.

  22. @Nathan, also let me add that it’s not theory. Everything we know (and teach) about headlines has been tested to see what works… from many decades of headlines in direct response marketing, to many years of blogging. ;)

  23. Great advice, Jon. I’m properly exonerated and will focus more on writing headlines that communicate and that work in social media.

  24. Jonathan, thanks for this article. I’d like your comment and that of others on the effectiveness of positive/negative headlines.

    The “How To….” or “21 Ways to…” may get tiring but they are positive, they are can do statements that make readers feel that great headlines are possible.

    In contrast, Jonathan’s “Don’t Do” headlines feel like the 12 Commandments but these dozen negatives could be expressed positively, provide the same useful advice and have a different impact .

    I am encouraged more by the positive framing of headlines rather than the “Thou Shalt Not” approach. Maybe others like to be flayed with a dozen verbal lashes.

    Look forward to your response.

  25. Thanks again for the great tips, I read the article the other day about writing effective headlines and it really hit home as does this one! Love the post and love reading the blog.

  26. Geoff, check out this post that discusses psychological research that shows people learn better from what NOT to do rather than being told what to do.

  27. Hi Geoff. Posts outlining common mistakes that people make are extremely popular. Lots of people are terrified of screwing up, and by putting your post in that context, it enters the conversation already going on inside their heads.

    Also, I remember reading somewhere that something like 30% of all people are goal oriented and 70% of people are problem oriented. In reality, talking about problems and goals are exactly the same thing, but people will understand you better if you tailor what you’re saying to the way that they think.

    The reason I took a problem-based approach for this post was that all of the headline posts written before were targeted at people whose goal it is to write better headlines. I guessed that a certain group of people would be much more interested in hearing common problems. Based on traffic numbers so far, looks like I was right.

  28. Ha, I should’ve known Brian would have a link handy.

  29. Jon and Brian

    Many thanks for your helpful responses.

    The psychological research is fascinating and your effort is impressive to key into the consciousness of the readers who are afraid they might stuff up!

    So grateful!

  30. Great post. I clicked through to all the links too, but my question must be a bit off-center. I routinely get a hundred times as many clicks from Stumble On as Digg or Delicious or any of the social media sites. I liked your insight into Delicious–about the numbered lists. What is it about Stumble on that makes them like my headlines?

    Whatever it is, I want it for all the others! Thanks.

  31. Hi Kali, I checked out your blog. You have some pretty good posts there.

    Getting traffic from Delicious and Digg takes a lot of effort. Normally, it’s not something that just happens. You have to promote a post like crazy for it to make it.

    With StumbleUpon, on the other hand, you can often get a few stumbles, and then it kind of takes off from there. Doesn’t take much promotion. You just need a good post.

    So, I’m guessing that’s the difference. If you were to write some resource posts, post them to Delicious, and then get about 30 people to bookmark it for you, I think you could have some success there too.

    Digg is another story. I’m not sure your subject matter is really conducive to Digg. You’d probably have to come up with a special angle specifically for the Digg audience.

    Anyway, the bottom line is I think your headlines are pretty decent. If you did more promotion in other places like Delicious, I think you might succeed there as well.

  32. #11 is key! Never sweat the failures. How else can one improve? Even the very best in every profession go through slumps. Remember: A writer writes, always.

  33. Thanks, Jon. I’m going to take your suggestions and see if I can crack Delicious next. I was stunned when my StumbleUpon referrals increased by 1000% overnight, so I thought the other social networks would work the same. You’ve now explained that.

    I look forward to more of your posts.

  34. Good stuff. I’d add “Don’t Give up.” Don’t ask for opinions is a good one. I worked as the editor of a magazine many moons ago and I used to dread it whenever my publisher would take an elevator ride. He’d invariably ask the persons standing next to him what our magazine needed and he’d come back filled with well-meaning ideas that were generally all wrong for the publication. Everyone will have a suggestion or an idea, of course they have nothing invested in the outcome.

  35. I HAVE A COMPLAINT!

    Every time I come to this site I spend what seems like two hours here because another great headline catches my attention!

    Awesome stuff, truly!

  36. Personally I tend to use ‘How to’ a lot simply because people are searching for this term.

  37. So true! I used to try to be unique and clever and no one noticed my posts. Now that I am using simpler titles, I am getting better results. =D

  38. @Anthony, you’re reminding me of my corporate days. (Hiding under my desk now.) A million well-meaning suggestions and no real vision.

    @Lone Wolf, we are certainly very sorry. :)

  39. I agree some of parts and i disagree some parts . Anyway , thanks for given us caution.

  40. Geoff,

    Ever see the show what not to wear?

  41. opps. Just read Brian’s link above. Sorry for the repeat.

  42. Thanks, this is really useful information. I’ve always struggled with #3 the most. It seems like for some reason we’ve been conditioned to come up with clever headlines. It often takes some discipline to come up with a headline that is useful and descriptive. Many times when I sit down to write a blog post, the subject matter comes out fairly effortlessly. Writing headlines is a different story, I often have to rewrite my headline several times before I’m satisfied. Thank you Jon for addressing an issue that I constantly struggle with.

  43. Great advice! I just started my blog and only have a few posts, but I will be spending a LOT more time thinking about the headline before I post the next one!
    Thanks,
    Kenn

  44. Great post. Next!

    Thanks Jonathan.

    Igor

  45. This is great advice Jonathan thank you. I think the point that stood out for me was not worrying about failing. I think we all worry that what we’ve worked hard to produce won’t get any recognition, but it is worth putting out there so you learn from your mistakes.

  46. 13. Don’t be too complex

    Simplicity will get you to succes!

  47. Great work Jonathan. I really like this article.

  48. But I like clever headlines. And I click on them. ( You are now witnessing the copywriter brat mood.)

    You are right though. One thing I am missing in your list is test and compare. Don’t you ever do it? And if indeed you do, what tools do you use?

  49. This is one of those things to definitely consider when making my headlines. Great post.

  50. I thought about writing one about testing, but “don’t fail to test” would be kind of weird. It’s something that you should do, not something you should avoid not doing.

    But yes, testing is important. :-)

  51. Hehe, maybe in a next episode :)

  52. @Ina, that can be a tricky one–if you’re a copywriter, you’re going to have a quite different mindset than most of your readers. Of course you can write to please yourself or the folks who read you, it really depends on your goals.

    I don’t know of a split test mechanism for WordPress headlines, and it would probably be lousy for SEO even if it existed, since you’d divide any links between two different pages. But you can test it for yourself by sometimes using clever headlines and sometimes straightforward ones. Then you can see which posts get more clicks, traffic, links, and comments.

  53. Yet as a copywriter you secretly hope that whatever makes you happy will make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    I only let myself convinced that being a “smartbrains” copywriter is not necessarily good after testing and seeing with my own arrogant eyes how much it matters to adapt to your readers instead of trying to adapt them to your own personal style. (As much as that would hurt an ego:)

  54. I think #1 is the hardest advice to follow:) Not everybody can write like Hemingway. But sometimes you can find your muse by looking at already works.

  55. Here’s a screencast showing how to split test headlines in WordPress.

  56. Sonia and Jon, you are total softies. You are the Lifetime Movie of the Week of copywriting blogs.

    Oh, yes you are.

  57. @Jon, oh nifty, I will take a look.

    @Naomi, I prefer to think of us as the Hallmark After School Special of copywriting blogs.

  58. @David Cain and Sonia Simone. I like #10 ,too, while generally not liking the restrictions this post places on me, so #10 calls for the C-word, compromise.

    I generally have several titles in mind and have to make a choice, so…pick the best for your best project, then the second best for your second best project, and save the rest for rewrites, submissions to secondary article directories, etc.

  59. Jonathan Morrow, Thanks for this advise.

  60. Great! It needs a little run-through only.

  61. Thanks for the tips! :)

  62. I agree with some of this tips , not all of them

  63. I just follow one thing and creating a question … curious question for my post and that will be my title. Although I do not apply every time … just when I want to hit Jackpot … :D

  64. I had to laugh when I got to #11.
    I’m experiencing this right now.
    I give it a few days then move on.
    Moving on is not hard for me because
    I have so much I want to share.
    Great Post! Thanks for sharing. :~)

  65. I’ve tried to be clever in my blog title a few times, and when I go back to read it, it looks cheezy and I can see why more than half of my members wouldn’t get it. Good advice.

  66. Writing headlines are more important than I though they were so I’ll need to work on mine to improve them.