Headline Tips

A friend of mine recently asked if I have any tips for writing headlines. I’d never stopped to write any of them down. But here’s my incomplete list of headline tips. Like all the advice on this blog, these tips are only sometimes true. Sometimes they will help you write great lines. And sometimes they will be wrong and lead you down paths of lameness. But most of the time, they’ll be mostly true.

  1. You’ll write 100 headlines for every one worth keeping.
  2. Sometimes great body copy can come from the 99 lines that you threw out.
  3. You can make your line stronger by removing every word that’s not absolutely necessary.
  4. If you have an unusual visual, go for a straight-forward line. If you have a straight-forward visual, put as much character and personality in your line as you can.
  5. Finally, we should all stop writing headlines that begin with “Finally,”
  6. Avoid the “It’s like a (blank) for your (blank)” formula. This has been done to death.
  7. Take inspiration from the Communication Arts Advertising Annuals. Over a decade later, I still think the 1999 and 2000 issues have the best collection of headlines.
  8. Headlines are often easier to write when you have a visual in mind – or better yet, a specific photo or illustration tacked to your wall.
  9. Don’t believe the platitude that negative words like “not” and “don’t” should be avoided.
  10. Write the way people talk. Not the way companies or mission statements want people to talk.
  11. Puns are not punny. See?
  12. If you’re not having fun writing, you’re not in the right job.


You’ll probably forget this headline because I didn’t take the time to make it as short as it could have been.

One of the biggest “I’M JUST A STUDENT” banners you can wave is having headlines that are way too long. If you’re a copywriter, you need to learn to edit without losing meaning or interest. If you’re an art director, you need to do the same. The words may not technically be your responsibility, but it’s still your ad. And a too-long headline can bring it down.
Let’s say you’re doing ads for a paint store that delivers the paint right to your home once you’ve selected a color on-line. You could start with a headline like this:
You can paint a whole lot more when you don’t have the paint department getting in your way.
Okay. I get it. Kind of interesting. But can you trim it?
You can paint a lot more when the paint department’s not in your way.
Much shorter. But are the words “a lot” really necessary?
You can paint more when the paint department’s not in your way.
Do you have to use the words “You can” at the beginning?
Paint more when the paint department’s not in your way.
Let’s get our Hemmingway on.
Paint more without the paint department in your way.
Paint more without the paint department.
And how about this?
Paint without a paint department.
I’m not saying that’s the absolute best one. But it’s a little more interesting than the original. And certainly more succinct. You could argue that there’s more character, and more of a voice in some of the longer lines. Maybe. Sometimes longer lines will give you the voice you need. But I think there’s plenty of character in the shortest line.
More often than not, headlines should be short. And writers and art directors need to be able to take long thoughts and edit them down to something someone might read and remember, even if they weren’t paying attention to begin with.

The New Yorker, iPhones, and Experimentation

Here’s a video of a cover for The New Yorker created on an iPhone.


Consider how much detail the artist puts into what is eventually obscured. He makes a nice little crosswalk, a cue, and a couple taxis. Then covers them up with a hot dog stand and silhouettes in the foreground. That doesn’t mean he was wasting his time.
I’ve seen a lot of portfolio students resist experimentation with tag lines, headlines, certain visuals and even media because they didn’t think they’d be necessary. They have an idea of what the ad should be, so they stop working as soon as all their requirements are met.
The truth is you won’t know if your ad needs a tag line until you’ve spent some serious time coming up with a sheet of the best lines you can write. And as much as you love that visual you came up with, you’ll never know if it’s the best until you try to come up with at least three that are even better.
Put in the time and effort to paint that crosswalk and those taxis. Who cares if they’re covered up? It doesn’t mean you wasted your time. It only makes the finished piece better.

When a Great Visual Isn’t A Visual

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard of Steven Slater–the now-famous Jet Blue flight attendant who recently quit his job by giving a verbal lashing to a passenger over the aircrafts’s PA system. He then deployed the emergency slide, grabbed a beer from the bevvy cart, and slid to freedom (until he was arrested shortly thereafter).

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone said that one of the reasons this story has captured the imagination of people everywhere (other than the fact that 95% of us wish we had the nuts to deploy our own escape slides) is that the visual of it is so good. That struck me as spot on. I have not seen, nor been able to find, an actual image of Slater descending the big yellow inflatable slide, beer in hand, but ten years from now I’ll remember that story as if I’d actually seen a movie of it.

I think my favorite visual description ever is in Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins. He describes two women walking up a stairway: “Their backsides swung like mandolins on a gypsy wagon wall.” Such a simple set of words, yet I can picture it exactly. The shape of mandolins. The way they sway in approximate unison, bouncing slightly. The fact that this is a gypsy wagon adds a certain attitude to the way they move. It’s what you might call theater of the mind.

When a radio spot is visual, you’ll often hear people say that. Theater of the mind. The spot conjures a clear image in the mind of the listener. All radio should do this. But really, all writing should do this. Most people remember visually (ever hear of the memorization trick where you construct a house in your mind, then assign the things you need to memorize to parts of the house?–you’re building a visual to help you remember). So anytime you can create a strong visual, you should.

But as we’ve seen, not all visuals are literally visual. And sometimes they’re better that way.

The other day, a student was showing me the concept for an ad in which a young kid was standing over a pride of lions feasting on their kill in the middle of the Serengeti. I asked him to see what happened if he tried to tell the same story with a headline. I don’t know if it’ll be any better, but the thing I’ve found is that often, especially when an image is a little ridiculous, a headline is a better visual than a visual would be. That is, letting the audience imagine an image is often more powerful than just showing it.

Consider this ad from Carmichael Lynch for Motorola walkie talkies:

What are you seeing? The visual is some kids waving from a boat. But what we’re all really seeing is poor Paps with his head jammed in the pump. I don’t even know what a bilge pump looks like, but the image I have in my head is pretty damn funny. Much funnier than if they’d just shown Grandpa stuck in a pump.

When you let the audience imagine the scene, you’re involving them. That’s something you always want to do. Of course, to do it right, your language had better be spot on. Your words need to be tangible. They need to be specific. “Bilge pump” makes the Carmichael Lynch ad. And your words need to be accurate. Even though I have never seen mandolins swinging on a gypsy wagon wall, I know that I am seeing the exact same bottoms in my head that Tom Robbins saw in his head when he wrote that line.

Line and Visual Tension

Generally speaking, if you have a really interesting, bizarre, or fascinating visual, you should keep the line really straight forward. Don’t get too clever with it.

Similarly, if you’ve got a brilliant headline, don’t work overtime trying to make the visual quirkier than it needs to be.

These are rules of thumb. It’s nothing written in stone. But look through the first few pages of the latest CA annual, and you’ll find a few salient examples.

Interesting visual, straight line…

Straight visual, interesting line…
And of course, a couple that defy this advice…

Pictures and Lines

Last week, I had to write headlines for a headline-driven billboard. After an entire day, I had two that were worth anything.

The next day, I had to write headlines for billboards that had pre-approved but fairly interesting visuals. I had about 20 within ten minutes.

This isn’t coincidence.

It’s significantly easier to write headlines to visuals. This is partially because with a visual, something’s already being communicated. Maybe the idea has already been established.

Not every solution will be (or should be) a visual one. But if you’re stuck, try solving it with a picture. Maybe you won’t come away with an all-visual solution. But finding an interesting image to write lines to is better than reverse engineering from a headline.

Timeline of a Pitch

June 2007: We begin pitching the National City Bank business.

July 2007: In a preliminary meeting, the client gravitates to the line “Some banks have tellers. We have listeners.”

August 2007: After a couple rounds, the client still really likes the tellers/listeners line.

September 2007: We make our final presentation to National City. The campaign isn’t all about that single line, but it’s included in the work.

October 2007: We’re told that we had the “best strategy” the “best creative” but that the agency is “a little too young, and a little too hip” for them.

November 2007: The business is awarded to Campbell-Mithun.

March 2008: I pass this National City Bank window on my way to work…

I’m not posting to complain. I just want to share a good joke.

When Headlines by Committee Works

Awhile back, Greg posted an article by Sally Hogshead with the simple statistical reality that you have to write about 100 headlines to get a good one. And while creativity by committee can be a frustrating and deadly process, if you have a concept, it sometimes helps to have several writers plugging away at headlines, just to generate the volume.

Here’s an example I found entertaining and relevant to what we do. It’s a story from This American Life about the process they go through at The Onion to create their fantastic headlines.