How To Write Headlines Readers Can’t Help But Click

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Do you want to write a great headline?

We’re here to help. We break down the 4 steps you can take to ensure that you write a crystal clear headline that your readers can’t help but click.

When writing headlines, knowing what to do can be half the battle.

We suggest you spend time answering a few simple questions to clarify your thinking before you start the writing process. Asking questions such as: who, what, why and how many, forces you to think of the details of your headlines before putting any words on paper.

We’ve put together a simple headline idea generator to help you brainstorm dozens of possible headlines that can be used for any type of article. This tool will help train your brain to write and recognize headlines that work.

Spend time working through these steps and you will be writing great headlines that people will want to read and share in no time flat.  But before we get to the steps, let’s talk about why clarity is so important in the headline writing process.

Why headline clarity is king

Great writing is not about writing.  It’s about thinking.

In Ship 30 for 30 we help readers build a daily writing habit. And once you have built your daily writing habit, we help you push your thinking to get clear on what you are writing about and who you are writing for.

To get someone’s attention, you have to understand their thinking. The clearer you are about why people...

  • do the things they do,
  • are they way they are,
  • have the fears they have and,
  • desire the things they desire

..the more likely you are to speak directly to your audience. AND when people feel like you are speaking directly to them, you hook their attention.

That is the power of a well written headline.

The headline is your North Star, your direction, and your compass.

It is the most important part of your essay because it tells your reader what they are about to get in exchange for their time.  The better the thought process behind your headlines, the higher chance that people will want to read it and share it with others!

Getting good at headlines means getting good at clarity.  That’s why we recommend you write your headlines first.

The first step is to think about who your audience is, what they want to read about and why they should click through to read your story.

Step 1: Choose an angle your reader will find interesting

Every headline has one thing that makes it work.

Your headline is the first thing people will read, and it can make or break your article. It's important that it's interesting and enticing. Start by asking yourself the question, what will my reader find interesting about this topic?

Consider the journey you will be taking your reader on and the compelling aspects of that journey.

If it's not compelling, they are not going to read.  The angle is what makes your article compelling.

The headline is there to tell the readers something they didn't know—something interesting, surprising, important—and to tell them why they should care.

You have only a few seconds to capture their attention. So make it count.

Step 2: Answer the questions every reader asks and then some

Once you've decided on your compelling angle, it's time to focus your writing by answering a few questions that your readers will want answered.

The 3 questions every reader asks when reading any piece of content are:

  • What is this about?
  • Is this for me?
  • Why should I read it?

The reader needs to know the answers to all 3 of these questions, at a glance, otherwise they won’t click to read.

Here’s an example headline:

These Unforgettable Tips From Silicon Valley’s 10 Most Successful VC Firms Will Change The Way You Think About Business Forever

  1. What is this about? = This is an article about business tips from Silicon Valley VCs
  2. Is this for me (the reader)? = If you are interested in business tips from the best of the best venture capitalists, this article is for you.
  3. What PROMISE are you making? = This article promises 10 tips from Silicon Valley VCs that are unique enough they will change the way I think about business.

This headline accomplishes all 3 of the important questions a reader asks themselves at a glance, which is what makes it work well

Writers dramatically underestimate how crucial the headline is to what they write on the Internet.

It’s not about being clever, or witty, or funny, or SHOCKING. It’s about being clear.

Headlines matter!

Step 3: Dial in the specifics and build curiosity

Now, we break these questions down further by adding emotion and expectations into the headline.

These are the 5 components we want you to focus on to bring absolute clarity in your headline:

  • How many? - The number of things they can expect to get. Is it 1 or many?
  • What? - What does the reader get? Reasons, Tips, Ways, Guide, etc.?
  • Who? - Specifically who the audience is or isn't?
  • Feel? - How do you want them to feel or how are they walking into the content?
  • Outcome? - What your reader wants and why?

To increase your chances of success, you must answer these questions or risk the chance of confusing your reader and losing them.

Remember, a good headline compels the reader to read on. And putting the 5 pieces together in your headline will help you to create a curiosity gap.

The curiosity gap bridges the beginning and the end of your article without giving away the answer in the middle. The reader’s curiosity is satisfied by answering the question in the body copy.

For example, take a look at this headline we break down in our Headline Mastery Course:

9 Reasons Writers Suffer From Writer’s Block

It answers all of the important questions we discussed and if you are a writer and you are suffering from writer’s block, you are going to have a hard time not clicking on this article to find out an answer to the question: Why am I suffering from writer’s block?!

Step 4: Write at least 10 different headlines

Now that you have all the important pieces in front of you, it’s time to write some headlines.

Write your headline in several different forms—at least  ten—then choose the best one. You can use the template we put together for you to brainstorm several ideas.  Take your time and go through each headline component.

Use the internet to look for headline ideas.

Scan Twitter, Medium, and other media outlets for articles to get ideas for different ways to format your headlines. Try writing some different kinds of headlines and see which one works best for you. We wrote an article with 25 different formats that you can try here.

This process can seem slow and frustrating at first, but it will quickly become an invaluable tool in making sure your writing works.  Slowing down your headline writing will work to speed up your article writing.

A note about choosing which headline to go forward with.

Go back to where you started—the compelling angle.  Ask yourself, what is the final message that is being communicated to the reader?  Is that message coming through clearly? Is it still compelling?  Does it add up to an interesting journey?  If you can’t answer yes to that last question, then edit your headlines some more until you can.

Bonus Step: Get even more specific

If you captured the 5 components in your headline and stopped there, you will have the makings of a great headline already.  But, if you want to take your headline writing to the next level, you can punch up (or down) your headlines by getting even more specific with your audience and outcome.

In Ship 30 for 30, we like to say that the size of your question dictates the size of the audience.

If your headline begs a question that addresses a problem, solution, or outcome that a lot of people want or have, then you will attract a larger audience.  Conversely, if you ask a smaller, more niche question, you will attract a smaller audience.

This is another way for you to increase the voltage or attractiveness of your headlines.  Look at your audience and outcome in your headline and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this a general or specific audience?
  • Is this a question for a lot of people or a few people?

Then punch up or down the voltage by asking:

  • How can I make the audience bigger? smaller?
  • How can I make the outcome bigger? smaller?
  • What kind of audience, outcome, or feeling am I talking about?

Here’s an example of asking “what kind of audience?”:

And the same headline but punched up for a more general audience

As you can see, 1 headline format can turn into several simply by changing the dials on any one of the core components in your headline.

In Summary

The four steps steps to writing great headlines are:

  • Choose a compelling angle
  • Answer your core reader’s questions
  • Dial in the specifics
  • Write multiple headlines
  • Get even more specific

Remember, the most important thing is clarity wins.

Don't try to impress anyone with your clever words or your ability to make an obscure subject sound interesting or complex ideas sound simple. If people don't understand what you are saying in the headline, they won't click through to read your story anyway, no matter how fascinating it is.

Get the template.

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