A Guide for Budding Copywriters: How Not to Write a Kick-Ass Headline.

I remember, before I plunged into advertising, boasting about how good at it I'd be because I enjoy lying so much. I was wrong - the point of it is not to lie well; the point of it is to find something, whether a feature or an angle, that is true, and painstakingly build on that.

There are other things I've learnt too. Unfortunately, the ability to write an awesome, mind-boggling outstanding headline is not one of them. (Yet.) But I am an optimist...in this specific context. And so, taking inspiration from Edison, I comfort myself with the thought that, while I have not mastered a single technique for producing a good headline, I have learnt many ways which do not produce a good headline.

And yes, that is progress.

Here are a few that I'd like to share.

1. Obsessively googling things such as "How to think of a brilliant headline", "How to think of a brilliant headline in ten minutes" and "Can stupid people make themselves smarter".

2. Making a word tree, with random words connected to your brief linked to each other. A lot of useless advice on the internet told me to do this, but the end result was my scribbling monkeys around the page.

3. Smoking an unhealthy number of cigarettes and pacing up and down the entire office, glaring at the art people.

4. Setting self into a state of relaxation by sitting on a bench in a quiet courtyard with the wind blowing through the trees. It won't make you think of a headline. It will make you think of Goa.

5. Meeting friends at a bar, getting intoxicated, and attempting to find inspiration by bouncing ideas off said friends. It will not lead to inspiration. It will lead to a humiliating confession about how you one day want to have two secretaries called #1 and #2, and adopt a Chinese baby called Michiko after you turn forty.

6. Attempting to rhyme (unless absolutely called for.) For instance, "It's time to walk the line during Lakme Fashion Time". I would like to clarify that Lakme is not a client, I'm not completely sure Lakme Fashion Time actually exists, it just sounds vaguely familiar, and I would choke on my own spit and pass out in the bathroom never to wake again before showing anyone a line like that. Although worse ones have popped up in my head. That's the way the wind blows.

7. Boasting about the company or the product. Unfortunately, this is something that I've been asked to do occasionally. "Try and make the client sound good in the headline, they will probably approve that." Yeah, the client probably will approve that, because they have no fucking clue what makes for a decent ad, but the point isn't to butter up the client so they'll approve the headline. The point is to generate attention, interest and sales, and the only way to do that is to focus on what potential consumers need.

8. Attempting to pass off something vague as a headline because it sounds good. People aren't stupid, man. Okay, they are, but thinking of them as stupid doesn't help. I always think of what David Ogilvy said here, and imagine people I know - my mother, perhaps, or a friend, or even an acquaintance depending on context - reading the ad. Yeah, so it's very easy to be vague, and convenient, but though vagueness often makes for a nice-to-read headline, you'll promptly forget  what it says about ten minutes later, even though you've written it. Which obviously defeats the purpose.


I actually can't think of anything else. Mostly because now that I've started writing this, all that comes to mind are tips on how-to-write-good-headlines. So obviously knowing what not to do, helps you stumble your way towards what you should do.

But I won't pretend to advise you on that.


See point 1.

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