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How to Write Headlines (and Short Copy in General)

A few months ago, my friend Ashlee (of A Squared Online) commented on one of my LinkedIn posts. “What’s the secret to writing really short copy – like for a billboard?” she asked. This article on how to write headlines is for her. And you.


To write headline copy, you need to learn how to write short copy in general. And by the way, it’s hard. Don’t feel bad if you struggle with it!


How to keep your copy brief


Say it once and then move on


Repeating what you just wrote is the most common issue I see. It can show up in so many ways, like using two adjectives that mean the same thing:


“I wrote a brief, short email.”


Or repeating statements but using different words.


“My family loves to go surfing.” And then two paragraphs later, “We are big surfers.”


Got it the first time.


Because this is hard to get right, I’d ask someone to proofread for you. They will catch things that you won’t – and they will offer an objective viewpoint.


Keep it high level


Unless you are writing a user’s manual or otherwise teaching someone how to do something step by step, you rarely need to get into the weeds.


Write overviews and keep explanations brief. The details are best left to conversations and proposals/contracts.


You can also take a pro-active approach. Provide a link where they can find additional information or ask them to be in touch if they have more questions.


Use active, not passive, voice


Sentences have three basic parts:


Subject, action, object.


When you write in an active voice, the subject does the action and the object receives the action:


“The dog caught the ball.”


When you write in a passive voice, the object does the action to the subject:


“The ball was caught by the dog.”


See how much longer that passive sentence was? Every passive sentence is longer than an active sentence.


If you’re worried that you write in passive voice too much, this website has TONS of examples of active versus passive voice.


Don’t use these two verb tenses


That website with all the examples? I started editing the future perfect sentences as I went. They are way too long.


Here’s an example:


“The famous artist is going to have been painting the mural for over six months by the time it is finished.”


This is my edited version:


“By the time it’s finished, the artist will have painted for over six months.”


So don’t use future perfect or future continuous (it’s just as bad).


Chop up long sentences


One way for your copy to appear shorter is to use short sentences. A bonus: your ideas will be clearer.


Here’s an example courtesy of my long-time client Bob. (It’s about options trading; I pulled it from the blurb he sent me for last week’s newsletter.)


“For now, there are lower levels to test for the indices, time to be a bit defensive, seasonal trends are not in the bulls’ favor.”


My edits:


“For now, indices are testing lower levels. Time to be a bit defensive, because seasonal trends are not in the bulls’ favor.”


Show, don’t tell


You probably remember your English teacher reminding you to show the action, not write about the action. This can also keep your copy short.


Here’s an example of writing about the action:


“The dog played fetch by running, jumping, and catching the ball.”


And here I am showing the action:


“The dog leapt through the air to catch the ball.”


Use as few words as possible


This is a challenge, but it’s something I do often. I’ll ask myself, “How can I cut down that sentence?”


I’m going to pull a sentence from above and show you want I mean. Two paragraphs up, I wrote:


“This can also keep your copy short.”


But this is what it originally said:


“Doing this can go a long way to keeping your copy short.”


Maybe I’m a dork, but I find this fun.


How to write headlines


Writing headlines is an art form. It takes a LOT of practice, brainstorming, editing, and a Thesaurus (for more interesting or powerful word choices).


They need to be really fast to read and understand. When you do write a headline, ask:


Can a person driving past a billboard read it?


If the answer is maybe or no, it’s too long.


Get right into the action


Cut out the subject and start with the action:


  • Got milk?
  • Grab a heinie! (From an old Heineken commercial – one of my all-time faves.)
  • Drive like you live here.


I love these because they are simple messages that are easy to read and understand. Imagine them on a billboard with one bold graphic.


Bold ideas


I always love something provocative that makes you stop and think. Three fantastic examples are:

  • What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
  • Your wife is hot. (Better get the A/C fixed.)
  • Great balls and grass!


No, that last one is not an ad for a strip club. It’s for a driving range.


Alliteration or repetition


Playing around with words and ideas can spark some really creative headlines. I love both alliteration (repeating similar sounds) and repetition (repeating a word).


  • Work hard, play hard.
  • See something, say something.
  • Stop, drop, and roll.


(By the way, I did a search for funny billboard headlines while I was writing this post. Warning: it’s a rabbit hole.)


You can get good at writing headlines!


It’ll just take time! While you’re practicing your headline-writing, I really want you to practice writing shorter copy.


Start with emails, which we all write all the time. How can you make your messages shorter and clearer? The recipients will thank you!

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