A Guide To Writing Powerful Headlines

Whether it’s a book proposal or a blog post, titles and headlines matter. They don’t just summarize your story, post, article, or essay, they also entice an audience to read your words in the first place.  A sloppy headline may not give your writing a chance for people to read it. And headlines that are powerful but clickbaity will degrade your audience over time. Headlines are also important for pitching. If your headline doesn’t quite sum up what your pitch is about, or if it’s misleading or confusing in any way, the editor may not make it through your entire pitch.

A good headline is strong, authentic, and enticing. But headline writing can be trickier than it seems. Much of it is subjective  —  what one reader might find intriguing, another might find completely boring. Headlines can also be misleading when they don’t deliver what they promise, frustrating the reader. Many headlines are also confusing. They try to pack in so much information that the story gets lost entirely. And often enough, headlines give away too much of the story, making the audience feel they don’t need to bother reading.

In writing solid headlines, the goal is always to catch your reader’s attention and encourage them to keep reading. There are a few strategies to go about this, but it helps to know the foundation of a solid headline from the start. Most headlines follow a similar structure that includes these elements:

  • Hook: A phrase that grabs a reader’s attention and tells them what the story is about.
  • Topic: A word or phrase that sums up the “what” of the essay.
  • Context: The “when,” “where,” or “who” of the story, to give the title more depth.

Let’s break down an example:

Not every title will follow this structure perfectly, but you’ll find that the basic elements are usually there: The topic, a bit of context, and an interesting way to hook the reader. Beyond the basics, there are some tips and tricks that can for catchier headlines, once you know the general structure.

Use powerful words.

There’s a reason words like “toxic” and “surprising” often make their way into headlines  — they trigger a subtle but powerful emotional response from the reader. Here are some other examples:

Words like “dirty” and “absolutely” are strong, and that makes it easier to hook your audience and make them want to keep reading.  When brainstorming your headline, make a list of powerful words related to your topic, then see if there are ways to incorporate those words into your headline. Break out a thesaurus (we like WordHippo) and play around with different synonyms from the words on your list.

Be specific.

Your headline should still have a specific hook to make it stand out. We’ve all read a thousand articles on “How To Build A Budget,” for instance. After seeing a generic headline like this so many times, readers tend to glaze over these titles unless they’re searching for them specifically. A better, more specific headline might be “How To Build A Zero-Sum Budget When You’ve Tried Everything Else,” or “Build the Perfect Budget Based On Your Biggest Money Problem.” These titles stand out more and evoke more emotion from the reader because they’re relatable in their specificity.

As tired as we all are of seeing “7 Ways To Blah Blah Blah,” the truth is, these types of headlines get readers to click and continue reading. Of course, the downside is that readers will often skim these types of posts without actually reading them. But they can work well for service-driven stories or pitches, in which much of the post is skimmable and the purpose of the writing is to help readers solve a specific problem. Beyond the list-style format, other types of numbers can work well in headlines, too. Here are a couple of examples:

In a way, these headlines can be counterproductive  — they do give away the story a bit. Yet specificity still makes them enticing to readers. 

Ask yourself: Why keep reading?

Your headline should always leave the reader wanting more. So in writing it, ask yourself: Why keep reading? 

For example:

How to negotiate with your landlord

This one is easy. Why keep reading? So you can learn to negotiate! It’s typically easier to answer this question with service-driven stories like the one above (stories that are helping the reader solve a specific problem) because the takeaway is extremely clear. Readers will keep reading to learn to solve their problem. In other contexts, however, this question can be trickier. For example:

It’s Impossible To Focus On Work When The World Is On Fire

This headline is about the lack of productivity we may all be feeling with climate change and the deluge of bad news this year. So with this headline, why keep reading? For one, it’s relatable and evokes quite an emotional response with, “the world is on fire.” Anyone who might be feeling demotivated or overwhelmed would be enticed to keep reading this story to find some solace in  — or maybe even some tips for  — managing their overwhelm. Not all stories will solve a problem, but you have to find a way to entice the reader to continue.

Use tools to help you brainstorm.

When you’re feeling stuck, there are a handful of tools that can help you brainstorm powerful headlines. Here are a few of our favorites:

Sumo’s headline generator is especially fun because it generates a number of different ideas, depending on the words you plug into it, sort of like Mad Libs for powerful headlines. And CoSchedule’s tool will break down the effectiveness of your current headline and give you specific feedback on how to make it better.

Know your audience.

Because a good headline is subjective, you must know your audience. Buzzfeed and the New York Times have quite different guidelines for writing headlines, for instance. When you’re pitching a publication, make sure your headline is similar to those the publication publishes. In general, you want to make sure your headline is tailored to your target audience. How will they react? Have they seen this topic before? Will they understand jargon? Is there a way to make the story more specific to them?

Even seasoned writers can have trouble packaging their stories into a single headline. But like any other skill, it can be honed  — it just takes practice.