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How to write headlines that hook readers

to write headlines that hook readers

Your writing doesn’t matter. Not if you can’t convince people to stop what they’re doing and read it. We explain how to write headlines that hook readers and make them read your content.

The goal of your headline is to catch attention and convince people to drop what they’re doing and read your content in full. If your headline isn’t doing that…you’ve failed.

But only 20%, of the people who scan the headline of your content will continue reading the entire piece. So if you’re not convincing people to read beyond your headline, you’re invisible.

As the digital world becomes more saturated, this figure is likely to decline too. Which makes writing headlines that are eye-catching, compelling and intriguing a valuable skill. Strategy is everything.

So if you want to be successful — whether with a piece of content or across an entire content marketing campaign — you need to learn how to create headlines that will grab the attention of your readers and make them want to consume your content. 

Write headlines that hook readers

Ready to write headlines that turn heads and stop traffic? Here’s what you need to do…

1: Create a draft headline

What comes first, the content or the headline?  In this chicken and the egg scenario, you could start by writing your headline, or you could start with your content and work backwards. So here’s the answer to the riddle you’ve been waiting for…

They’re both correct! Truth is, there’s no hard and fast rule to write headlines that hook readers. Instead, it will depend on how you work as a writer. To make the process simple though, start by creating a draft headline to frame your work.

This draft headline will be a rough version which you can alter and edit after your content has been created. It’s not the final version, but a rough cut of the direction you would like to go. Think of it as the blueprint for your content.

Your draft headline can often be boring and doesn’t need to grab attention, but it is a starting point. Don’t worry if it’s not leaping off the page just yet, because you are going to rework it later until it is perfect. 

2: Create 25 to 30 variations of your draft headline

Once you have your draft headline, you can start writing your content. When you’ve finished writing and have a grasp on the core subjects you’ll be covering, you can start editing your draft headline.

To start with, write out 5 to 10 variations of your headline. This will give you some practice writing compelling headlines.  Try and come up with contrasting headlines that focus on different angles. Can you agitate a pain? Highlight a pleasure? Pose an intriguing question? Or make a powerful statement?

The more you write, the more creative you will become. This is because your brain is stimulated and becomes more creative through use. You can kick start this process by creating a further 10 headline variations. 

Once you have done these variations, you will be able to create another 5 without thinking too hard about it. This will leave you with 25 to 30 draft headlines to choose from.

3: Use power words to boost your headline

Next, it’s time to trim the fat. Identify which headline matches your content best. This will differ for everyone, so it’s up to you to make the call.

Keep in mind there’s no right or wrong answer. And the more you cut your 25 to 30 headlines down to one, the better you’ll get at choosing the best fit to write headlines that hook readers.

From here, it’s time to add power words. Power words are words in your headline that people can’t resist. Adding power words to your headline will get people interested. This is the same technique used by newspapers and magazines to stop you in your tracks as you walk by.

As professional copywriters will explain, power words can also be broken down into emotional categories including fear, safety, encouragement, greed and lust. These act as psychological triggers that tap into the subconscious of your reader. These are the secret most headline writers don’t know about.

Examples of power words to include in your headline and catch the eye include:

Fear Safety Encouragement
✗ Meltdown
✗ Catastrophe
✗ Danger  
✗ Risk-free
✗ Guaranteed
✗ Permanent
✗ Astounding
✗ Mind-blowing
✗ Sensational  

BONUS TIP: Complement your power words with sensory words

Don’t tell people what your content is about. Show them. You can do this by using sensory words that evoke the senses and connect with the imagination of your readers. Sensory words will help your readers hear, taste, see, feel and smell the words you use.  They engage different parts of the brain and will attract more attention than other words.

Sight: dazzling, bright, foggy
Touch: sticky, fluffy, gritty
Sound: crashing, thumping, piercing
Taste/smell: sweet, delicious, tantalizing

Fill your headlines with power and sensory words and you’ll be ready to move onto the next step.

4: Use visual breaks (and parentheses)

If you want to create headlines that are more engaging, you can use visual breaks that attract the eye. These are particularly effective on smaller screens like smartphones, or when surrounded by competing content.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to use parentheses. Hubspot and Outbrain completed a study with more than 3.3 million links. This study found that links with brackets in their headline performed 38% better than those without them. 

Other visual breaks include:

  • Numbers: 1,2,3,4,5)
  • Emojis: 🙂, ❤️, 💰
  • Symbols: $,@,&,%)

Consider the following 2 x headlines. Which one stands out to you?

Headline One – Finally a weight loss technique that works and doesn’t break the bank

Headline Two – Finally! A weight loss technique that works (and doesn’t break the bank)

5: Ask questions

Asking a question is another way that you can get people to stop and read your headline (and with any luck read the rest of the content too.) 

Questions make people want to find answers and will ignite the natural curiosity that everyone has.  Of course, you will need to ensure your question is:

a)  one that can’t be easily answered without reading the content. 

b). not misleading or tricking people into reading more

Put simply, if you ask a thought-provoking question, you will generate curiosity and make your reader want to know the answer.  An example of these types of headlines might be – ‘Are you making any of these 8 common blogging mistakes?’ 

If your audience are bloggers, they are going to be curious about what the common mistakes are. This is a writing strategy known as ‘Open Looping’.

This psychological phenomenon states that people remember incomplete tasks, questions and information better than they do complete versions. Tease your audience with a question and their subconscious will be desperate to find the answer.  Which they can do…by reading your content!

Step Six – Have a hook

Now that you have chosen your headline, added power words, inserted visual breaks and asked questions, it’s time to ensure your hook is present. Think of your headline as your fishing rod. You need to throw it out into your audience and bait them to read more.

The best way to do this is to provide incomplete but intriguing information in the headline and leave your audience wondering what the rest of the information is. 

Hooks are very powerful and will provide an honest way of grabbing attention. Outside of intrigue, you can also hook your audience with shock or delight. Your readers will want to read the rest of your content to determine if the shocking fact is true, or if the delight is as pleasing as they anticipate.

7: Keep it short

With so many steps towards your perfect headline, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was strength in length. However, one of the most underrated headline writing tips is to keep it short.

Headlines cannot be too long, though many people forget this in an attempt to cram in as much value as possible. More than an issue of writing to scanners, keeping your headlines short is a matter of practicality. Why?

With the majority of searches being performed on smartphones, keeping your headlines short makes it easier for people to read on their phones. 

So if you can take the essence of each of these steps and package them in a clear, simple and easy to digest headline… Then congratulations, you now know how to DIY the perfect headline!


Alexander Porter is a travel blogger and Head of Copy for Sydney based agency, Search It Local. He spends all day working with words, then goes home to write some more. Occasionally feeling guilty about working with personal words behind the back of professional words, he is passionate about helping everyone become stronger, more capable writers.  https://twitter.com/SearchItSocial

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