How To Write A Great Headline For An Article: 5 Simple Steps

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

In this week’s Digital Writing Compass Deep Dive we want to talk about setting your reader’s expectations.

Your headline isn’t just about what’s in your article.

Your headline is about what’s in your article for the reader. 

If a reader is going to take the time to read what you created, you need to let them know what they can expect from you ASAP. Remember: you aren’t just asking them to “read.” You’re literally asking them to trade 30 seconds, or 2 minutes, or 10 minutes of their life in exchange for whatever value you’re promising them. Think about that. They’re never going to get that time back. So, what are you giving them—and how can you make it clear it’s worth their time?

Reader’s want to know:

  • What problem will this solve for me?
  • What will be unlocked as a reward for reading?
  • What’s going to be different in my life if I read this?

If you aren’t answering questions like these, then the reader won’t know what’s in it for them, and they’ll be gone.  

To get readers to read your work and pay attention to your content, you need an effective headline.

It’s not about just randomly getting people’s attention.

Sure, you might get lucky writing a clever headline, but wouldn’t it be great if you knew exactly what a reader needed to read? Of course it would! To increase your success rate, you need to make sure that everything you write in your headline has a purpose.

Let’s get into the 5 core building blocks of an effective headline.

Building Block #1: The reader’s name.

A great headline addresses the reader specifically.

Readers want to know, “Is this for me or not?” And when you name the audience directly in your headline, you’re telling your reader, “I wrote this for you.” Readers are more likely to give your article a chance when they see that the article is specifically directed at them.

For example, take a look at this headline from Buzzfeed. 

The headline calls out nurses, patients, doctors, and therapists! Guaranteed if you fall into one of those four categories, you are going to be hard pressed not to click and read.

Building Block #2: What the reader gets in exchange for reading.

Have you ever been on a road trip and had a craving for a donut? 

Chances are you scanned the roadside for any sign that said “Donuts.” If you are going to stop at some place to eat and you want donuts, you want to know what you will get before you step inside. And the same is true for your content. What will your readers get in exchange for reading? Will you give them tips? Strategies? A framework? A solution to a problem? A new insight? A new way of looking at the world? What are you “giving” them?

Telling the reader what they get in a headline is the equivalent of putting “Donuts” on your sign outside your donut shop. 

In this headline, for example, the writer is telling the reader they will (literally) get a donut recommendation. Notice how this headline also appeals to people who are into astrology.  

If you like donuts and you check your horoscope every day, this is the read for you!

Building Block #3: The number of ideas you are writing about.

Everything you write is a list, even if there is only 1 thing in that list.

  • You are writing about the donut.
  • Or you are writing about the 5 best donuts.

For example, here is a headline with a list of more than 1 item.

And this headline has a list of 1 reason why.

Whether you have a list of 1 or many, you are further setting the expectation of your reader by letting them know how many things they are getting.  

Answering “how many'' for your reader lets the reader know how much time they can expect to invest in your article. There is a difference between clicking through to read the 89 Tips for Grooming Your Daschund and The 5 Things You Must Know About German Shepherds Before Adopting.  You will clearly be investing in a scroll heavy post with the first one.

Different numbers. Different expectations.

Building Block #4: The reason your reader should give you their attention.

To get the reader’s attention, you have to tell them WHY they should take the time to read your writing.

The problem with most headlines is that they don't offer enough information to make a reader care. They're one-dimensional: "2 Tips For Cat Lovers" or "How To Think Like a Programmer.”

  • What do these mean for readers? 
  • Why should they care about the new thing? 
  • What are the benefits or advantages of this new thing? 
  • How does it fit into their lives and make them happier, smarter, or more productive?

The reader needs a reason to give you their attention.  What will they get in exchange for reading?

In this article from the New York Times, aspiring meditators are promised a way to be still when you are easily distracted.

Or in our YouTube video on Outlining, we promise that you can write your book 10X faster if you follow our strategy for outlining.

You make the reading exchange clear by stating the WHY in your headline.

Building Block #5: The Knife Twist.

Let’s do a quick recap.

  • You’ve named the audience.
  • You’ve made what you are giving them clear.
  • You’ve signaled how many ideas you’re presenting.
  • And you’ve given the reader a reason to give you their attention.

Now, with “The Knife Twist”, you are going to dig into a reader's innermost motivation.  You are going to tug on their heart stings with an emotional pull.  This is how you get your reader invested in what you have to say, by giving them the benefit of the benefit and offering them more of what they want.  

You are helping them to see that they can “be a millionaire by 30” so that they can “retire early.”  You are showing them how to start a business without “spending thousands” and “wasting time.’ 

You do this by tacking on an additional benefit with an “and” statement, or by completing the sentence “which means that” or “so you can” for the reader.

The more you give them a reason to pay attention, the more they will.

Assemble your headline.

Now you know the 5 essential building blocks to writing a clear headline, let’s put them together into a headline.

Pick a topic, and then fill in your 5 building blocks (separately) for your headline:

  • HOW MANY - The number of Ideas: {Answer here}
  • THE WHO - The reader’s name: {Answer here}
  • THE WHAT - What the reader gets: {Answer here}
  • THE WHY - The reason your reader should care: {Answer here}
  • TWIST THE KNIFE - What else are you giving the reader  {Answer here}

Now put them together in this order:


Read what you wrote down out loud, then move the pieces around until you are satisfied with the headline you created. 

For example, here is what the first draft for this article looks like:

5 - Headline Building Blocks - Writers - Be clear - Get noticed

That’s it!

If you really want to get better at this, go spend some time on Medium, Buzzfeed, YouTube, or any site on the internet where you can browse a long list of headlines. 

  • Be a reader. 
  • Get to scrolling. 
  • Find a topic you care about.
  • Scan through the list of all the headlines.  
  • Stop and copy each headline that raises your curiosity in a document.
  • Analyze the headline and single out each of the building blocks in use. 

Grab the headline template and start practicing.

Remember, a good headline compels the reader to read on. And putting the 5 pieces together in your headline will help you to raise your reader’s curiosity and click for more.

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