10-Point Checklist For Headline Writing

Looking for headline writing tips that will capture attention immediately and force readers to stop in their tracks? Who doesn’t?

What exactly are headlines? What purpose do they serve?

Headlines are the ‘ad’ for what’s about to follow. Its purpose is to tease the reader into clicking or reading more. If your headline fails, no one reads what’s inside. All that effort wasted.

For this reason, I spend at least 20% of my time designing the headline before I start writing. I know it’s tempting to write the content first and then go back to the headline. It doesn’t work. The headline sets the tone for what’s to follow.

If you’re writing for search engines, use the headline to blend keywords and phrases into your web content.

Nele en Jan

Headline Writing: 10 Ways To Edit, Test & Improve

So, how do we write headlines that have more appeal, greater impact, and work well across different media?

1. Accuracy

Is the headline accurate?

If your headline misleads the customer, they hit the back button, never to return.

Worse, if you’ve paid money – for example to run a series of Facebook ads – then you’ve got the wrong people to click thru to your site. Result? Lost budget and higher bounce rate. Two things you want to avoid.

2. Context

Does it work out of context?

If someone reads the headline – but doesn’t see the article or magazine it was taken from – would it still make sense?

When you write a headline, remember that it may be copy/pasted into Facebook, Twitter, or sent via email. Who knows where it ends up? So choose the headline structure that allows it to work in and out of context.

Here’s a good example from Neal Schaffer – How One Business Used Google Plus to Fight Their Competition

3. Promise

How compelling a promise does it make?

When I first submitted a blog post to a well-known site, the editor correctly replied that it failed to deliver on its promise.

What she meant was that the content didn’t relate to the headline. In simple terms, if you’re going to give ten ways to write better headlines… then list ten, not seven or eleven.

I’ve been guilty of this when changing the headline at the last moment. While the revised headline may read better, it often loses its connection to the text.


Write the headline first and then the content. And then leave it!

4. Parse

How easy is it to parse?

Can someone take the headline and parse (shrink/distill) the headline into less words.

Why is this important?

You want others to share your content across social media sites, email and so forth. Create headlines with the expectation that they will be changed. I often remove filler words, adjectives and other terms that ‘slow down’ the headline. Keep it snappy!

5. Numbers.

Would it benefit from a number?

Some headlines (like this article) use numbers to pull in readers. That’s you, by the way 🙂

The attraction of number headlines is that you, the reader, know what to expect IF you click the headline.

“A 10 point checklist to write headlines… could be interesting. I’ll give it a click.”

Of course, this doesn’t work for everything.

Use number headlines with discretion as otherwise it dilutes your other headlines and give the impression that you’re too lazy, dull, predictable to come up with other headlines… which you’re not, of course!

6. Filler

Are all words necessary?

Some headlines are too long. Why? Writers brought up reading newspapers, or taught to write for print publications, tend to write longer headlines.

Want an example?

How to succeed in your workplace and make friends with your enemies.

Which (for Twitter) might read:

How to succeed and make friends.


Turn Bad Enemies into Great Friends

You get the idea.

We don’t read much in depth anymore but we SCAN a lot of information. Write your headlines so they stand out, get attention, and make readers a little bit curious…

7. Proper Noun Rule

Does it obey the Proper Noun Rule?

It might seem old fashioned to talk about grammar but good grammar never hurt anyone.

So, if you don’t know what a Proper Noun Rule is… do a Google and come back for number eight.

8. Explanatory headline

Would it work better as an explanatory headline?

There’s more to headline writing than lists. Use headlines that explain, walk through and hold the reader’s hand.

Of all the types of headlines I’ve written, the simple How To headline is the most effective.

Now you know, grasshopper!

9. Event focussed

Does it focus on events or implications?

Some events work best for an event, for instance, the Superbowl, TV shows, football matches, or other high profile events. They also work for seminars, workshops, trade shows, and conferences.

Implications means that the headline ‘makes a promise’ to the reader that the content is going to discuss something that may happen… for example, what happens IF Paris Hilton is elected as President.

You see these type of headlines on entertainment magazines as well.

  • Do you have the seven signs of…
  • What happens if your credit score gets…
  • Fact! Organic food will damage your immune system…

10. Use Other Words

Could it benefit from one of these 10 words?

Don’t write your headlines too short. This headline has six words. I’ve tried different variations, some of which read better than others.

For example:

  • 10 ways to write better headlines faster
  • 10 point formula for headline writing
  • Headline writing in ten steps

When you’re validating your headline, explore which words will increase the reader’s Attention, Interest, Desire, or Action.

Tip: share the same post on Twitter with variations of the headline. Let me know which one performs the best 🙂


That’s how I approach headlines. Of course, I don’t always check this list as I write but… as I know these principles very well I automatically blend them into my headlines and rarely stray too far.

And, of course, I’m always learning.

That’s where you come in.

What’s your best tip for headline writing? Any headlines that sticks in your mind as a real classic? And what’s the biggest mistake to avoid?

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2012 and has been updated for freshness, quality, and comprehensiveness.