The Art (and Science) Behind Neck-Snapping Headlines

    I’ve already broken a major rule of copywriting…

    … and I should know better. Because as a professional copywriter – with seven figures of sales for clients – I know the secrets to crafting irresistible headlines.

    But this one breaks a rule. And it’s a biggie.

    I’ll explain that rule in a minute, but we need to make a deal first. I’ll explain the broken rule – and why I broke it – if you promise to read this entire post without skipping ahead.

    Do we have a deal? Good.

    Neck Snapping Headlines Require Three Ingredients…

    John Caples – along with Joe Sugarman and Eugene Schwartz – is considered one of the best copywriters ever.

    Not only was John Caples a gifted writer, he was also an avid tester. He routinely tested assumptions (notably headlines) to see why some worked… and others fell flat.

    He then wrote a book about it: Tested Advertising Methods. And guess what? He dedicates four whole chapters to headlines.

    As Caples once famously said:

    If the headline of an advertisement is poor, the best copywriters in the world can’t write copy that will sell the goods.

    Caples explained great headlines have three ingredients:

    #1. Self-interest.

    These headlines explicitly tell your reader what’s in it for them.

    For example:

    • “How to Write Better .”
    • “How You Can Get Your First 1,000 Subscribers”
    • “The Secret to Great Copy”

    #2. News.

    These headlines announce something “new”, which draws your reader in.

    For example:

    • “New Writing Technique Doubles Your Productivity!”
    • “Announcing Apple’s New Fan-Boy Favorite For Writers!”
    • “New Study Finds Writers Block Is A Complete Myth (and How to Break It)”

    (Note:  These headlines sound newsworthy, but they also include self-interest. The combination makes them stronger).

    #3. Curiosity.

    Curiosity is extremely powerful online. Your readers may have seven tabs, chat windows and god-knows-how-many social platforms open.

    Curiosity grabs their attention and pulls them into your copy. The first few paragraphs should build suspense and arouse curiosity (notice how I did that with the opening paragraphs here?)

    For example:

    • “What American Idol Can Teach You About Writing Well”
    • “Why Getting Arrested Made Me A Better Writer”
    • “How Two Teenagers Turned A Bicycle And A Hundred Bucks Into A $53 Billion Dollar Company” (yes, this one’s true – which was it? Let me know in the comments below!)

    The more of these “ingredients” you include in your headlines, the better.

    How To Write Irresistible Headlines Right Now

    Luckily for you, there are plenty of proven headline templates available. Some have worked for decades… and will work for decades more.


    Because these templates use the elements of self-interest, news and curiosity that John Caples swore by.

    So to get you started, here are…

    10 Proven Headline Templates

    #1. “Reasons Why _________”

    Example: “7 Shocking Reasons Why Your Headlines Fail (And What To Do About It)”

    #2. “How To…Without…”

    Example: “How To Land A Book Deal Without An Agent”

    #3. “The Secret to….”

    Example: The Secret to Writing Well

    #4. “Why Haven’t You…”

    Example: Why Haven’t You Used These Writing Hacks Yet?

    #5. “The ______ Guide To….”

    Example: The Stephen King Guide to Writing Fiendishly Good Books

    #6. “Are You Making These ______ Mistakes?”

    Example: “Are You Making These Common Grammar Mistakes?”

    #7. “Why ______ Is Wrong”

    Example: “Why Ernest Hemingway Is Wrong For the Internet” (you could write a post like this one explaining why “literary” writing is not a good fit for the web.

    #8. “Don’t Read This If…”

    Example: “Don’t Read This If Your Writing Already Wins Awards.”

    #9. “Common Mistakes…”

    Example: 37 Common Mistakes New Writers Make (And How To Avoid Them)

    #10. “Cheat Sheets” or “Blueprints”

    Example: “A Cheat Sheet for Powerful Writing”

    And if you want some to get started, I’ve created a list of 101 headline templates which you can use right away.

    WARNING: Don’t Use These Templates
    Until You Read This…

    A great headline is a promise.

    A great piece of writing delivers on that promise.

    So before you run off with these templates, make sure your content delivers what they promise. For example, a 1,000 word post on grammar is unlikely to be “The Ultimate Guide to Grammar”.

    It’s just not big enough.

    And if your headline promises to reveal “The Hidden Secret to Writing Faster,” it better not be painfully obvious (e.g. “Just write continuously.)

    Of course, these templates can be used elsewhere, too…

    5 Uncommon (But Extremely Powerful) Places To Put Your Headlines

    #1. Your email subject lines.

    Powerful subject lines mean higher open rates and engagement with your audience.

    Most autoresponders let you split test your subject lines to see what works. For example, let’s say you have 10,000 subscribers. You could send two different subject lines to 2,000 subscribers, see which works better, then email the winner to your remaining 8,000 subscribers.  Cool, huh?

    #2. Twitter.

    Use proven templates to craft your Tweets. Like email, it leads to higher clicks and engagement. This also works well for social bookmarking sites like Digg or StumbleUpon.

    #3. Your sub-headers.

    Notice the sub-headers in this post? They kinda look like headlines, don’t they? Sub-headers break up your content into easy-to-digest nuggets… and compelling headlines keep your readers hungry for more.

    #4. Bullets.

    People love reading bullets –  so make sure to include proven headlines there, too!

    #5. Product names/Presentations.

    “How To Double Your Traffic With An Editorial Calendar” sounds so much better than “Getting Started with Editorial Calendars,” don’t you think?

    Revealed: The “Broken Rule” And Why I Broke It…

    As I mentioned before, your content must support your headline.

    No matter how amazing your headline is, it will FAIL if your content doesn’t deliver.

    For example, if your headline promises “7 Ways To Lose Belly Fat Without Dieting” and you only list five (and mention dieting in one of them)…

    You’re screwed.

    Which is why I took a risk here. This post’s headline, “The Art (and Science) of Neck-snapping Headlines” does not mention art.

    Know why?

    Because there is no art in copywriting. Only science (specifically psychology and statistics) are needed to write eye-catching headlines.

    I included “art” in the headline for two reasons:

    • First, it’s a commonly known phrase (e.g. “The Art of War”)
    • Secondly, some people believe headlines are an art form, and I’d love to hear their opinion on this.

    What do you think? Is there room for art in writing great headlines? Or does science rule?

    Let me know in the comments below (and feel free to post some of your headlines, too!)

    About the Author

    Adam Costa is is the co-founder of Travel Blogger Academy and Grab his 101 headline templates and start writing irresistible headlines today!


    About the author

      Adam Costa

    • Liz McGee says:

      Hi Adam,

      I think both art and science can apply to writing headlines.

      There is kind of a science in that headlines should follow a formula to include curiosity, deliver on a promise and be easy to understand, but people can get artistic with their headlines by being creative too and I’ve seen some creative headlines that definitely got my attention.

      In fact the headlines you mention in your post leave a lot of room for being creative.


    • I believe the above 10 templates still work. It’s what is in the “fill in the blank” spot that counts. List type headlines are still used quite a bit, for example.

      Even though we may have “evolved culturally,” I still believe that these headlines connect with us on a primal level. Who wouldn’t want to learn “8 Ways to Increase Your Computer’s Speed” or “The Homeowner’s Guide to Saving Money on Repairs?”

      A little creativity will make these templates work. For instance, I recently spec’d two articles that were purchased immediately, partly because of headlines with a twist and a bit of humor. The titles were:

      For New Writers: 3 Power TIps for Becoming a More Better Writer, and
      For New Writers: 6 Proven Tips for Getting into the “Write” Mood.

      For further proof that these headline templates still create interest, note the fact that many successful direct response sales letters still use these formulas, some of which have been running successfully for over a decade.

      These Headline Templates are merely a framework. You still have to flesh them out and make sure your lead and addtional copy backs them up.

      Great article, Adam!

    • Shannon says:

      I’m with Anne — understanding the concepts and psychology behind these headlines is what works. As with any template, your ability to customize it for your target market is the key to success. Maybe that’s where the “art” of it all really lies — in finding a balance between the psychological principles and the creativity you have to add for your readers.

    • I write a commentary column for a local paper in my community.
      Iwould have to agree that your headlines or title of the article
      has to draw the reader in.I recently wrote a article about how
      much my city needs street repair.MY title was THE STREETS
      knew I had the readers’attention.I feel your headlines need
      to reach up and grab the reader.I am also a author and have
      a book coming out soon.I write fiction/non-fiction/poetry as well
      as history articles about my city where I grew up.Have a great
      day. sincerely,RICH

    • Thanks for the templates and the ideas to use them in different ways. And I agree about delivering, nothing worse than jumping into an article because you were pulled in by the headline and then you run up against a vacuum that does not deliver. [email protected] Boomer Highway

    • lynda says:

      just so you know i was reading… i believe the company you referenced was UPS.

    • I think the headlines above still work for some niches and countries (like mine, I’m from the Philippines.) I say this because most of the headlines I see are still the standard and flat: “How to raise a happy child.”

      And the templates above, especially if you understand the psychology behind it, helps you have a better foundation when it comes to writing headlines that work. But I would suggest injecting your personality when crafting titles, otherwise, you’ll be part of the many who use these “headline hacks” right out of the box.

      So is it an art? Definitely, because creating headlines requires creativity to be different from the thousands of folks who just fill-in-the-blanks using the templates.

    • Ad Robinson says:

      But these headlines no longer work. The scientific formula was discovered by every dodgy armchair entrepreneur in the world ten years ago in order to sell miracle hair-loss creams, manhood enhancers and diet pills. They make the headline read like a get rich quick scheme (much like the articles that sit underneath).

      The cultural brain has evolved passed this and now sees any such headline as the advertising equivalent of spam. Good headlines contain originality. They stand out by being different, not formulaic. And, despite what most people think, science is more about creative thinking than fixed processes.

      But you’re right—copywriting is not an art. It’s a craft. It takes practice. There are no cheap shortcuts.

      • I’d have to agree with the above writer. Because we’re so inundated with offers, anything sounding too “commercial” goes into the discard pile. Originality rules the storm-tossed internet seas (ouch!).

      • Adam Costa says:

        Hi Ad,

        You’re right: good headlines contain originality. But these formulas work just as well now as they did decades ago. Take a look at Cosmo, Copyblogger or WTD and you’ll see these formulas everywhere. The originality makes them stand out – but it’s the format which sells.

        In other words: start with a proven formula and add your own twist to it.

        Thanks for your comment!

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