10 Rules for Writing Catchy Headlines

Catchy Headlines newspaper image – copywriting headlines advice

The catchy headline

Way back in 1998, my editor asked me to write a coverline promoting The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The cover shot featured Jeff Goldblum looking out of sorts. Meanwhile, a pair of hungry-looking dinosaurs loomed.
I had it in an instant.
‘What’s Eating Jeff Goldblum?’
Tickertape fell from the sky. My colleagues hoisted me on their shoulders and paraded their headline-writing wunderkind.
Okay, so they didn’t.
In truth, my editor raised his eyebrows slightly, and nodded. But, despite the muted reaction, I realised I’d nailed it. And it was a pretty cool feeling knowing that over a million copies would be rolling off the presses featuring my four perfect words on the cover.


Catchy Headlines and Copywriting Headlines – ‘What’s Eating Geoff Goldblum’ example from Cable Guide magazine

‘Good headline, copy boy – now start editing those TV listings’



The bad and the plain ugly headline

Meanwhile, during that same early period in my career, I committed some howlers.
Chief sub: Martin, we have three young and sophisticated-looking models. All in red. Two short words, please.
Me: Um.
Chief sub: That’s one word.
Me: Classy cherries.
Chief sub: What?
Me: You know, like glacé cherries…
Chief sub: Keep your voice down, dolt. If the editor hears that you will never, ever, work in this town again.

I swear, bar a little artistic license, that is a true story.


10 rules for writing catchy headlines

Here are 10 rules for writing catchy headlines, based on my 20 years of experience in the industry. Bear in mind, this isn’t about SEO friendly titles – a subject in itself – but principles that work across digital and print. Hopefully they will offer something original and useful. In other words, something more What’s Eating Geoff? than Classy Cherries.

1) Write the headline first

This might seem counterintuitive but, providing you have done your research, write the headline before the story.

Do this and your headline, and the accompanying sell (see below), can help sharpen up the angle for the whole piece. I never think of a headline as the icing on the cake, but a way to help me focus on the right introduction and all that will follow.

2) Consider ‘copy architecture’

What I mean by ‘copy architecture’ is all the elements that make up the top-level copy on the page. The headline, the sell or standfirst (the introduction under the headline), any captions etc. You can only write that star headline – and be absolutely clear about the role it should play – when you know the supporting cast.

For instance, if you have a headline and no sell, your headline better be crystal clear:

APB couriers sends new truck fleet to Saudi

But if you have a headline and a sell, you can use the headline to reel readers in and the sell to deliver further information:

Lorries of Arabia

APB couriers sends new truck fleet to Saudi in £300m deal

What you should never do is be tempted to write a punny or cryptic headline like ‘Lorries of Arabia’ if it can’t be backed up with an explanatory sell.

This is so, so important and leads to the next point.

3) Choose clarity over cleverness

There is a massive temptation among writers to slip in a pun or witticism in the headline. Ask yourself the following:
a) Have I sacrificed clarity for cleverness? If the answer is ever yes then kill your darlings and go for clarity every time. Because headlines are a navigation aid and you must direct your readers before you try to dazzle them.
b) Is the pun or witticism appropriate to the medium, or appropriate at all? As an example, consider my ‘classy cherries’ for those sophisticated fashion models. That was definitely an example of a cheap pun before appropriateness.

4) Write to picture

Whether you are writing a blog post or a magazine article, write your headline with the accompanying image in mind. Like music and lyrics, they are always a double act and will only truly sing together.

Wherever possible, I chase and hassle colleagues in layout or pictures for images. And when I do, my headlines are always better as a result.

5) Be concise

For every headline you write, ask: Is there any way I can snip out excess words without losing impact or clarity? If the answer is yes then do it, because when you are trying to capture attention quickly, brevity is always best.

Not ‘The Scottish circular economy is set to grow’ but ‘Scottish circular economy set to grow.’

Which leads to the next point…

6) Avoid ‘The’

Especially at the start of a headline. This is one of the first rules I learnt from a subeditor. While it might seem like a minor point, ditching the definite article ‘The’ can liven up a headline. See the example in point 5 above.

7) Finish on a high note

Do your concise, catchy headlines fizzle out at the end? Then either chuck them away and start again, or reorder your sentences. Your headline should leave the final word ringing in the reader’s ears. And, bear in mind, designers will often emphasise the final word of a headline too, so it better be a good one. Here’s what I mean:

Booking holidays – success in 12 easy steps

This is okay, but can’t you just feel the promise of the word ‘success’? And then the mild disappointment as we peter out with ‘steps’?

Much better to go for:

Booking holidays – 12 easy steps to success

Or even better, for the sake of brevity and because a series of steps implies a certain easiness anyway:

Booking holidays – 12 steps to success

Is it the most exciting headline in the world? Perhaps not. But it is informative, concise and, with ‘success’ at the end, it generates some positive energy to draw the reader in. And that means it is doing its job.

8) Use the active voice

Clown squirts water at Donald Trump’ is concise and active. The subject of the sentence (the clown) is doing something (squirting water) at the object (Donald Trump).

Meanwhile, ‘Donald Trump is squirted with water by clown’ is passive. The subject (Donald Trump) is having something done to him (being squirted with water) by the object (the clown).

Wherever possible, put the person or thing doing the action at the start of your headline. And if your headline contains an ‘is’ and an ‘ing’ there’s a good chance you’ve got it the wrong way around.

9) Use ‘how to’ and list headlines

I know, I know. They are everywhere right now. (Even in my own headline.) And for good reason. People like to learn something and ‘How to’ is the clearest way to signal you’re going to tell them. ‘10 ways’, meanwhile, is a symptom of the way we like to read on the web – in bite-sized chunks.

Yes, one day – perhaps even soon – the world will grow sick to death of both of these constructions and will point and laugh at the stupid bovine writers who used them. But right now, everyone from bloggers to broadsheet newspapers are toeing the line. And that’s because these constructions generate click throughs and eyes on pages.

10) Remember: less is more

Finally, if you’re writing for an editor or a designer, don’t be tempted to submit too many headlines. Yes, it can help to provide a shorter and a longer version (designers will love you for this). However, 10 headline ideas will suggest to others you never really found the correct one. And they will probably be right about that too.

Martin Philp offers professional copywriting services at Coast Copywriting. He has been supplying headlines for magazines, newsletters, advertisements, blog posts and websites for over 20 years. Take a look at his copywriting services or get more copywriting tips.


Credit: Donald Trump picture courtesy of Ed Ogle. Reproduced under Creative Commons License.

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