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How to write a headline

My favorite headline appeared originally in the Jewish Daily Forwards, a newspaper published originally in Yiddish. The Forwards was published on the Lower East Side of New York City at the time when New York City was home to masses of Jewish immigrants who had fled the Third Reich and had traveled to the Lower East Side to start a new life. To get that life they had to assimilate into American culture and the Forwards was created to help them become Americans.

So while the Forwards was written in Yiddish, an energetic language that sounds like German but is written in Hebrew characters, the spirit and directness of the writing was aggressively American. The Forwards was a newspaper but it was not a newspaper in the sense that the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal is a newspaper. Yes there was news but mostly there was advice about how to get along in this great new country. Among the writers of the Forwards were many columnists and one of the most popular was a fellow named Hymie Schmeckle. He was a humorist and even his name was humorous. In fact, in Yiddish, Shmeckle means Smile! It came to pass that Hymie Schmeckle passed on and it was only fitting that his obituary appeared in the paper for which he worked. The headline of his obituary is one that Hymie would certainly have liked to have written. It stated simply: Hymie Scheckle, Schmeckle Nicht Mehr. English Translation " Hymie the Smiler, Smiles No More. It sounds better in Yiddish but its still a great headline.

It's good because even though its only five words, it tells the reader what he about to read and sets the stage for the words that come next. This headline is especially good because not only does it tell the reader that the story below is an obituary, but it also sets the tone and lets them know that even though this was a sad story, it was story that was going to be told with loving kindness and an enduring sense of humor. All this is five words.

When it comes to pure communication power, it is hard to think of a better example than a well written headline. A good headline reaches out, gets the reader's attention and jump starts him on his way to receiving the message that you have prepared for him. Do you want to tell a story about the most important thing you can do to get new prospects to come to your website? Maybe you would start off with a headline like this: New study: Great Content still most important to web searchers.

This headline is not clever but it tells the reader exactly what he is going to be reading and, in my humble opinion, this is what most readers want to know.

If you have read this far, you may be asking yourself "why do I have to know about headlines? I'm not a copywriter and I don't write ads for a living. This is a reasonable question, and is in fact the reason for this page.

Headline Writing as Message Preparation

Most of the readers of this site are not copywriters. Most are marketing managers or business owners who are looking to do what they can to get more customers and build their business. They will generally come to this site because they have something to say to their customers or prospect and they are having trouble saying it.

After doing this kind of work for many years, I have come to believe that if you can learn to write a decent headline, it is much easier for you to craft a written message that does what you want it to do.

Here's why. One of the most common reasons for ineffective writing is the failure of the writer to focus on exactly what he wants to say. There are many reasons for this kind of mumbling or "fumfering" as they might say in Yiddish, but right at the top of the list is what I will call "waiting for the divine." This is a delusion fostered by inexperienced writers that if they take the time to put pen to paper that the Lord will take hold and somehow convert what is in their head (although never fully formed) to what they want to put on paper. A better plan is to try to write a headline that captures what you want to say in a way that makes the reader want to know more.

If you want to see examples of how this works go out an buy yourself a copy of your local tabloid or better yet the tabloids they sell at the checkout aisle at the supermarket. These guys are the masters. They know their audience is waiting to check out and likely bored and restless. So they toss you a headline: "Angelina's Shocking Confession" or "The weight loss miracle that saved my life" or "What the oil company's never want you to know." Most of these stories start in the front of the paper, the area known in the trade as the front yard. This part of the story works with the headline to build your expectations but even if you are a fast reader, you won't get to the good parts before you have to start unloading your cart. If you are really curious you will pony up and buy the paper. When you get home you will find that as quickly as you were swept up in curiosity in the front yard, you are gently returned to earth in the back yard where you may learn that Angelina loves spinach or that a balanced diet is your best bet for weight loss.

But that isn't the point.

What is important is that the story worked because the headline worked. And the headline worked because the writer knew exactly and completely what he wanted to say before he wrote a word. There was no divine intervention, no flights of inspiration, just a clearly stated goal and a few bits of content.

Whether you want to write a web page, a brochure, a report, even a memo. Begin by deciding exactly what you want to say. It's fine to list one two or more messages. Then write a headline that tells the reader what you are going to be talking about.

"Why this is the only cookbook you need to own"

"The Hoffman Proposal MUST be completed by end of day Thursday"

"If you know the fast food industry, you will understand instantly why this is a once in a lifetime opportunity."

A good headline encapsulates the message and sets the table for the reader. Not only does it help communication but it speeds it up as well. Just as a good wood worker is helped by working in a workshop that is neat with everything is in place, so is the marketing writer aided by starting with a headline that captures the message in a way that is energetic and clear.

Get in the habit of writing headlines for your writing projects and I guarantee that your writing will improve. It isn't necessary to actually use the headlines in your final product. A letter for example can begin with a headline, but it isn't necessary. A good headline can often guide the writing of a letter, memo, brochure or presentation. By helping you keep your main message clearly in mind, the headline helps you write with clarity and organization.

Try it.