How to Write Killer Headlines

Let's Talk 540.713.2579
Writing a piece of long-form prose is no easy task. You’ve got to craft a great lede, connect sentences and paragraphs with satisfying transitions, accelerate the story with active voice, reveal setting and character, and deliver a delectable denouement. Given all of that, why the hell would any writer worry about an article’s headlines and subheads? After all, in a 2,000-word blog post, heads and subheads might account for less than two percent of everything written. How to write killer headlines should be the last thing on your mind.

Without proper care and feeding of that critical two percent, the remaining 98 percent of an article may not be seen at all. That’s the harsh reality, but it’s also the grand opportunity for a writer to leverage his or her authorial power, galvanize attention and compel the audience to read all the way to the end. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not without booby traps and quicksand (remember DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN from the 1948 Chicago Tribune or how about this gem from 1929: Illini Face Northwestern with Peters Out).

Powerful headlines take work, but few resources exist to show you how to write killer headlines that get readers to click. Whether you write them first or write them last, this blog will help you improve your headline-writing skills.


Structure + Function

The word headline is one of those friendly terms that reveals its derivation. Literally, the term refers to the lines of text set at the head, or top, of a passage or page. In newspapers, magazines, ads and blog posts, headlines are usually printed in large type and give the gist of the story or article that follows.

Subheads, as the name implies, are subordinate or secondary headlines that help to clarify or delineate logical sections of a longer piece of prose. Like headlines, subheads communicate what the author is going to cover in the subsequent paragraphs. Taken together, headlines and subheads contribute to the overall structure of an article. In short, they help to establish visual hierarchy and give readers a tour of a page’s contents, which enhances readability within copy by allowing readers to scan through a document while still understanding where to find information.

Functionally, a headline calls attention to the story — it’s the neon sign that says, “Stop, this is important, read me.” In a publication, it works synergistically with other elements to draw readers into a story. These elements include photos or illustrations, deck copy, ledes (or leads, if you prefer) and pull quotes. The image below, captured from a Cobalt blog post about context, shows how these elements look on a typical page.

In the example above, the headline, Context Is King, pulls people in, both by playing off the familiar phrase “content is king” and by introducing alliteration. It starts to build momentum, which is then handed off to the subhead, which helps to clarify the intent of the article. The subhead then transfers the momentum to the deck, which uses a pop culture reference to build interest and enthusiasm. All of this energy passes to the lede, which, if everything has gone well, propels the reader down into the body of the article. Working together with the article’s other key elements, the headline charges its readers, converting them from casual browsers into avid content consumers. That’s how to write killer headlines in a traditional editorial format.

Headline vs. Title
Headlines technically do not count as titles; this term is reserved for standalone publications or institutions. Headlines are used instead for self-enclosed pieces of content within a publication, such as newspaper or magazine articles.

Show + Tell

A good headline balances summarizing an article and captivating readers. This is because a writer needs to communicate the contents of his or her article — which is done by summarizing — and the article needs to stand out above other competing content.

As far as summarization is concerned, the main objective is to communicate what’s inside a piece of prose. Readers want to know what kind of article they’re looking at and who it’s for. Apart from outright stating an article’s premise or what’s inside, quick ways to summarize contents include:

  • Signaling. Every piece of copy has a type of reader in mind. Targeted word choice lets that kind of person know this article is for them and that it will likely concern topics relevant to them.
  • Communicating genre. More often than not, readers are on a hunt for something specific. Allowing them to categorize an article before reaching the body text can speed up the process of catching anyone looking for that type of content.
  • Intriguing questions. While this technique can lean more to the creative side, the questions evoked from a headline’s wording cues readers in on what its contents will be. They will enter the article expecting those questions to be answered.

The tactics above do the marketing legwork for any copy. Appeal, though, is also significant. People respond to the witty craftsmanship of poems or novels, and the same is true for headlines. Here are powerful ways to spice them up:

  • Length. Short statements send a message, and headlines are supposed to do their job quickly anyway. The longer a headline drones on, the more it risks losing attention spans.
  • Active voice. Don’t waste time with those helping verbs. There’s more tension in the verbs they modify, and many writers start their headlines with these words to build energy.
  • Repeating sounds. Many good headlines have a rhythm. Repeating a sound, whether it’s consistently found at the beginning, middle or end of words, helps make the writing enjoyable.
  • Puns. They’re unique. Puns can establish almost unrivaled rapport that endears readers, if executed well.

Of course, more creative techniques will appeal to some readers and not others. But subjectivity plays an important role here, even with summarizing. No tactic will be received the same way by every person who reads it, and for many of these tactics, that’s the point.

This list has practical value, but it’s one thing to talk about headlines, and it’s another to see how to write killer headlines in practice. Critique can help build that mental toolbox from which writers draw to generate material.

Writing for Algorithms
Ultimately, everything online boils down to traffic. Online articles still need to signal what they have to offer potential visitors, but add in search engines acting like middlemen, and a writer has two demographics to consider: human and machine. For online content, the most critical headline gets the <h1> designation, and search engines use this specific tag to learn about a page’s contents. Based on this information, engines rank pages in searches or show excerpts for users to evaluate.

Heady + Haughty

Summarizing an article isn’t as hard as it looks. Most of the time, thoughtful word choice is enough to give an idea of what an article contains.

Consider this headline:

Everything You Need to Succeed as a Manager

This headline is clearly tailored to a specific audience. The words “manager” and “succeed” imply a business theme, though success may have a dual-purpose that includes signaling this is a self-help article. Already, readers know what kind of article this is and who it’s for.

Here’s another:

Drive Innovation with Better Decision-Making

Nothing fancy here, but it is effective because it features a business buzzword, “innovation.” And because the same word is the object of an implied imperative — (you) drive innovation. It must be the assumed goal, which makes “better decision-making” the means to achieve it. So, this article makes a promise that readers want to hear.

One more:

The Project Economy Has Arrived

This headline raises so many questions. What is a “project economy”?  What did it replace and why? What does this mean for the reader? These questions give a good idea of what’s contained inside the article, and all of them should be answered.

As stated earlier, there is a balance to strike between functionality and appeal. This other, more creative side to writing headlines is complex. But it’s also more subjective and can be quite exhilarating when the creativity pays off.

Read this:

Make Megaprojects More Modular

So much personality is condensed into one headline. The most noticeable element is its alliteration. Every word starts with the same letter. There’s also assonance. Each word possesses one of the two sounds a or r. The last two words even rhyme.

Here’s a pun:

Addition by Reduction

Aren’t the words “addition” and “reduction” contradictory? How could this premise possibly make sense? Perhaps the tactic isn’t going to work on everyone, but it’s clever. Most readers will want to figure out the author’s logic.

And finally:

Rethinking Negotiation

Again, it’s very simple. Only two words. But there’s something to the shortness of this headline and the leading verb charges it with energy.

Okay, that’s enough demonstration of how to write killer headlines. Now it’s time to practice writing a few of your own. Up next, we’ll offer up some techniques and tools.

Communicating complex ideas is hard. We make it easy.

Have a project you would like to discuss?
Please use the form on our Let’s Talk page.


Write + Revise

Suppose that a writer needs to write a headline. Like any other, it must fit both roles of summary and appeal.

Aspiring authors often apprentice other writers, and the same can be done with headlines. Just like with any creative medium, each headline in a magazine is a master class in how to write them. Anyone can play a little headline roulette, flipping through a magazine and critiquing what they find.

Alternatively, the writer could rely on rhetorical theory. A simple approach could be to treat the task like any other rhetorical situation, then get more specific. Steps would include the following:

  • Identify the situation.  Look over the copy in question and figure out what needs to be communicated. What genre is it? What is unique about this document’s topic or its approach?
  • Who’s the audience? What demographic is being written for? In other words, who would be interested? What would they recognize? Tailor the headline’s vocabulary for them, even if it’s only for one word.
  • Get crafty. Once an idea has been fleshed out, play with it. Try raising questions for the reader. Use literary strategies. Find synonyms that rhyme or start with the same letter.

If you’re still looking for some assistance or inspiration, check out the resources below. Some are headline generators; others are lessons and tutorials. One thing to note: many of these resources are focused primarily on how to write killer headlines in digital publications, though you can apply the results to any headline, print or online. And if you need more help, our team of professionals at Cobalt are ready to help companies meet their content and headline goals.

Additional Reading & Resources

As a strategic communications agency serving science- and R&D-driven organizations, we specialize in highly technical markets where complex ideas and information must be conveyed with clarity. Our team includes writers, designers, strategists and content architects, all working together to help you reach — and engage — your internal and external audiences.

Please Stay in Touch

Brands Aren’t Born – They’re Built: All five senses can be used to attract interest and build engagement.

Sign up for our Bolt from the Blue e-newsletter to learn more about topics like this.