How to Write Great Headlines

When it comes to headlines, brevity is the soul of success. Not all great headlines are brief. But most are.

The sure sign of the flummoxed copywriter is the six-tier, 40-word head that says just about everything that comes to mind. When a copywriter hands me a sales letter with a first page that is half headline, I am pretty sure I have a confused person in front of me.

Every good sales package includes dozens of ideas, benefits, promises, and features – but you can’t put all of them before the salutation. Creating a breakthrough sales package is a process that begins with a key decision: Of all the good stuff here, which one should I lead with?

When we aren’t sure which idea is strongest, it’s generally because none of the ideas are all that strong. When we can’t decide which of a half-dozen promises will hook them, it’s more than likely that we haven’t yet come up with the right promise.

The first secret to writing great headlines is this: Make it simple. Choose one major idea, benefit, promise, or whatever – and go with that.

Once you have something you feel comfortable relying on, the next trick is to narrow it down to a single short and powerful statement.

All other things being equal, the shorter headline is more powerful. Why? Because it can be easily scanned – and, therefore, is more likely to be read. And also because the strongest ideas are usually deceptively simple ones. If you hit it right, you won’t need that many words to pitch it.

In the age of the Internet, brevity is even more valuable. If you want a lesson on how to write great, short headlines, study the CompuServe home page On any given day, you’ll find six or eight good-to-great headlines. For example, the home page I’m looking at right now provides the following:

5 Things Couples Argue About

Our No. 1 Fear While Driving Is …

Who Knew Sex Had This Effect?

What’s Hiding in Your Food?

Why are these so good?

Because, in a very concise fashion, they do exactly what headlines should do. They:

  • catch and hold your attention
  • suggest a benefit, implicit or explicit, to the reader
  • imply that you will learn something new or different
[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]