Why These 6 Catchy Headlines Work — And How to Re-Create Them

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Every great article needs a great headline.

In fact, even an average article can rise to the top if it has a headline that makes people want to click and read. Headline writing is a skill, and like any other skill, the more you know about writing headlines, the better your headlines become.

With that in mind, I’m going to take apart six amazing headlines and show you exactly why they work — and give you six new techniques you can use when you write your next headline.

1. How to Start Writing a Book: Use This Trick to Find the Time

Let’s start with a recent article at The Write Life by by Anita Evensen. What makes this headline great? I’ll break it down for you:

  • The “how to” element lets readers know they’ll learn something by reading this article.
  • The headline uses the words “start writing a book,” not “write a book.” For a lot of people, the hardest part about writing a book is getting started. This headline acknowledges a lot of people have a great idea you know you can turn into a book — if you can just figure out how to begin.
  • The phrase “use this trick” implies the article will include information most people don’t already know.
  • The headline ends with a reference to finding enough time to write your book, implying the article will help you overcome the other obstacle keeping you from writing.

This headline works on people who haven’t yet started writing books, as well as those like me who are over 50,000 words into a novel but still have trouble finding the time to write new chapters.

The headline promises a unique answer to a common problem, which in turn gives us a reason to read the article.

2. Why Everything We’ve Been Told About Happiness Is Flawed

This Fast Company piece by Stephanie Vozza uses a “why construction” to let readers know that this article will explain something we’ve observed but don’t fully understand.

In this case, the article is going to explain why “everything we’ve been told about happiness” — an important phrase, because it invites readers to recall all their knowledge on the topic — is wrong.

There’s a lot going on here. If you’re doing the “right things” but still don’t feel happy, you’ll read this article to learn whether you were given bad advice. If you’ve always been skeptical of aphorisms like “money doesn’t buy happiness,” you’ll read this article to confirm what you already think you know.

This headline is not structured like a question, but it asks the reader to consider a question anyway: What have I learned about happiness, and is this knowledge correct? You won’t know unless you read the article.

3. I’m a Woman in Tech, But Even I Didn’t “Get It” Until This Week

This article by Laura Roeder hit Medium’s “Top Stories” list, and I’m guessing a lot of it had to do with the headline.

This headline works because it leaves out most of the important information. What does Roeder mean by “get it?” Why didn’t she “get it” before? What happened this week?

The piece of information Roeder does reveal — she is a woman in tech — is also important. It lets the reader know this article is probably about gender in the workplace, which is relevant to both men and women in a variety of industries.

Some readers will click this headline because they have experienced gender discrimination and want to know if Roeder had a similar experience. Others will click to see if it’s a story about harassment. People in the tech industry may look to this article to see if it offers suggestions for improvement. There are a lot of reasons to read this piece, and a lot of questions that go unanswered until you click the link.

4. 23 Pictures That Won’t Make Sense If You’re An Only Child

The listicle construction is a common way of attracting people to an article, but here’s why Buzzfeed is one of the best in the listicle business: This piece, written by Alex Finnis, isn’t titled “23 Pictures That Make Sense to Siblings.” It’s titled “23 Pictures That Won’t Make Sense If You’re An Only Child.”

With that slight adjustment, Buzzfeed makes its piece relevant to both siblings and only children — and chances are, you fit into one of those two categories.

Siblings will read it to be reminded of their childhood. Only children will read it because they suspect their childhood wasn’t that different from their friends with siblings. You can almost hear the only children thinking “What do you mean, these images won’t make sense to me? Of course they’ll make sense, and I’ll read the article to prove it!”

Many childhood experiences are universal, whether you have a sibling or not — and this piece is set up specifically so both siblings and only children can read it and think “I remember that!”

With certain types of headlines, it helps to make sure as many people as possible think the piece is about them.

5. How Intelligent Do You Have to Be to Raise a Child?

I bet you’re already thinking about the answer to this question. You’re asking yourself whether smart people are better parents, what kind of intelligence is required to raise children, and so on.

You’re probably putting yourself into the answer, comparing your intelligence to your peers — and you’re doing this regardless of whether you are a parent.

Here’s what makes this headline brilliant: Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article is about a young woman with mental disabilities who successfully won a custody battle for her daughter.

The headline doesn’t ask you to consider whether a woman with mental disabilities is intelligent enough to raise a child. It asks you to consider whether you are intelligent enough, which means you go into the article ready to empathize with the young woman at the center of the story.

There’s one more piece you need to know about this headline: It probably wasn’t the first headline chosen for the story. When you click through to Miller’s article, the headline is “Who Knows Best,” and there’s another variation of the headline that reads, “How Smart Do You Have to Be to Raise a Child?”

Online publishers often change a headline after a piece is written to try new ideas and test results until they find the headline that attracts the most readers.

6. Justin Bieber’s New Underwear Ads Are Designed to Make You a Little Uncomfortable

This Slate article by Heather Schwedel is not written in the form of a question, but it asks multiple questions regardless: Is this the underwear ad you saw last week, or is it something new?

If you click the link, will you see an ad that makes you uncomfortable? It won’t really make you uncomfortable, though — right? Underwear ads aren’t scandalous. Is this one more scandalous than usual? Have underwear ads finally gone too far?

Yes, you’re going to read this article because it promises a picture of Justin Bieber in his underwear. But the most important part of the headline — even more important than a shirtless Justin Bieber — is the part that suggests you’ll be “a little uncomfortable.” A lot of people are attracted to the slightly uncomfortable, from horror movies to those YouTube videos where doctors perform blackhead extractions.

You’re going to click this link to see if there’s something uncomfortable lurking behind it.

How to create your own knockout headlines

Before you start clicking on these six articles — because I know you want to — I promised you six techniques you can use on your next headline. Let’s review what you saw above:

  1. Imply your piece will answer important questions
  2. Promise a unique answer to a common problem
  3. Leave out key information
  4. Let the reader think the piece is about them
  5. Invite the reader to empathize with the subject
  6. Make the reader a little uncomfortable

How many of these techniques will you use the next time you write an article? As they say in the headline business: The answer may surprise you.

Do you use these techniques in your own headlines? What do you think makes a great headline?

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Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.... .

Nicole Dieker | @hellothefuture

Nicole Dieker
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  1. Not only can a catchy headline help you land a great writing gig, it can catapult your career to the next level. The trick is to make your readers WANT to read what’s under the headline. These headlines are ones that many writers can learn to emulate.

  2. This is a great post and I like the advice about addressing the information gap.

    Do you have advice for headlines for personal blogs? For instance, I write about my daughter’s medical life on one blog and about culture (books/films) on another. My content doesn’t answer common questions or concerns, make people uncomfortable, or pretend to be about other people. (My daughter’s congenital heart defect is not something I can construe as being about others.). Sometimes it elicits empathy, of course.

    Any tips for headlines for that kind of content? I’d LOVE my headlines to lead to my next writing gig!

    • I suspect your content answers more common questions than you think. Just by a quick look at your site, I know that you’re addressing questions many parents dealing with their children’s health issues are asking, such as “how do I help my child during the pre-op period?”

      Is your audience mostly other parents like yourself, who are helping their children through medical treatments? If so, you might have the opportunity to reframe your headlines to acknowledge that—which is what I already see you doing in your headlines to an extent. “Partying Through Pre-Op” is a good start, because a lot of people will be either already familiar with that experience or be preparing for that experience. What question or worry will be addressed by reading that post? That’s what the rest of your headline could focus on.

  3. Sarfraz says:

    Hi Nicole,

    I am Sarfraz here, PhD student of International Relations & politics. Some online Blog has approached me to write on global affairs for their online. would you be kind enough in directing me where i can get access relevant to International relations quality content, phrases and other writing material which might assist me in a best way making my article more powerful and to grab attention of the viewers.
    best Regrads

  4. Thanks for a good, straightforward article on headlines. Appreciate the practical information. It’s definitely time for me to pay attention to headlines as I build my blog about 20+ years of getting health & medical research to focus on patient results. Not exactly an everyday topic of conversation!

  5. I so wish I could write decent headlines! ha! names too for my stories/poems!!!

    Thanks a million times Nicole

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