How to Write Headlines and Subheads

By Mark Nichol

The first thing most readers notice in print or online is a headline. Think of it as a virtual handshake. If your headline is the text equivalent of a cold, dead fish, you’ll make a poor first impression. Or think of it as analogous to a cover letter or a request for a date. You only get one chance to introduce yourself — make it good.

Various types of headlines exist, and some are more suitable than others for various types of content. Here are eight categories appropriate for selling something, whether it’s a product or an idea, along with a sample headline of that type:

1. Direct: “Lawn Mowers on Sale”

Such an approach may seem dull, but consider that no single reader personality prevails; some people like an unadorned statement. Many people looking for lawn mowers on sale will be gratified to see the headline “Lawn Mowers on Sale” — “Ah, just what I was thinking.”

2. News: “Remote-Control Lawn Mower to Debut in April”

A journalistic headline conveys authority and is straightforward without being plain.

3. How-To: “How to Select the Best Lawn Mower for Your Yard”

The words “how to” have launched a million headlines (many of them right here on this site), and for good reason: What do you type into a search engine when you want to learn how to do something? “How to” tells readers that somebody out there wants to help them.

4. Question: “Is Your Lawn Mower the Right One for the Job?”

A query to readers is an invitation, a promise that they’ll get something out of the experience; all they have to do is pick up the magazine or click on the link and read.

5. Command: “Go to Lawn Mowers R Us for the Best Deals”

You don’t have to be a current or former military service member to know that a directive gets one’s attention. Of course, it’s more likely to succeed in a marketing pitch if it aligns with the target audience’s desires.

6. List: 7 “Things to Look for in a New Lawn Mower”

The next-best approach to a how-to headline is a list. Look in the archives here at Daily Writing Tips and notice how many headlines start with a number. People like enumeration; it offers a promise that they will come away from the reading experience with quantifiable results.

7. Testimonial: “I Got a Great Deal on a New Lawn Mower”

A testimonial, an authentic or fictional statement about the value of a good or service, is a time-honored advertising strategy. People are drawn to anecdotal evidence — especially if it is accompanied by a photograph of a celebrity or an attractive model who has ostensibly offered the claim — even though such overtures are notoriously unreliable. But if you routinely employ testimonials that stand the test of trust, even readers who practice critical thinking will find them appealing.

8. Teaser: “The Most Important Purchase You’ll Make This Year”

Take care with this approach, because you can easily overextend yourself. “My most important purchase of the year will be a lawn mower? Really?” If you can back up the tease — a survey of real estate agents concludes that good lawn care drives up property values and is a significant factor in home sales over the asking price — then by all means use it. But be careful: One unsubstantiated teaser headline can drive a reader away forever.

Conciseness

Notice that none of the sample headlines above is more than ten words long. Many effective headlines are half that long, or even shorter. Make sure your headlines are no longer than they need to be, but nail the technique or catch the vibe you want first, then reduce the word count if possible.

Take care, however, not to truncate unnecessarily: You might think, for example, that “How to Select the Best Lawn Mower for Your Yard” has three extraneous words at the end, but the best lawn mower overall may not be the best lawn mower for your yard, and the use of the word your personalizes the message — hey, reader, I to help you!

Originality

Copy and paste your final draft into a search engine. If it comes up, consider altering one or more words or starting over again. There’s nothing wrong with using an existing headline — there are only so many ways to string together a handful of words about a topic — but you may not want your article to be associated with the content beneath that existing one, especially if it’s of inferior quality.

And don’t hesitate to use a basic, functional headline, or to assume that it’s already been taken: In an online search, the headline for this post (the most fundamental wording I can think of for the topic) came up only in a single extent reference, and was in an obscure video tutorial.

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4 Responses to “How to Write Headlines and Subheads”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    This is always something I struggle with, the headline is always important and it always seems to be the last thing I think about. The looking it up in a search engine is a great idea though, maybe that will help me get a better grasp on it. Thanks for sharing, appreciate it!

  • Martino

    Great article Mark! Have shared it with our editorial team and am looking forward to seeing your advice being used in practice.

  • CJ

    I love this blog Mark. Every day brings an opportunity to learn something new, or to brush up my technique.

    But today I am struggling to resolve your last sentence. Did you mean ‘single extant reference’?

  • Nick

    It is perhaps the ultimate irony that an article about proper headline writing has a bad headline.

    The headline states we will be taught about not only headlines but subheads, too, yet the word “subhead” never appears even once after that. And before anyone says, “Well, the rules apply to both,” let me say that anyone who knows how to write, edit or publish knows that a headline and subhead are two totally different things. Besides, it is the job of article writer or editor to make that clear if that were that the case.

    Looks like we have a classic instance of the editor and writer working hand-in-foot.

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