Paint Pictures with Words: Headline Writing Tips

You can write a successful headline using any number of proven techniques. For example, lists (5 Things You Need…) and how-to’s (How to Make…) are bullet proof headline-writing formats, but we all know these headline-writing approaches. They’re overdone. They’re vanilla.

It’s time to take headline writing up a notch, or five notches. Let’s get creative with something I call “headline picture painting.” Write a headline that evokes a relatable image in your readers’ minds. Here’s how.

Pick an icon

Let’s say you’re writing a blog post about an upcoming summer sale. It’d be easy to talk about all the discounts you’re offering, but other than dollar signs, what image does the word “discount” conjure?

Get specific. Hone in on a simple, but not cliché, concept that connotes an image and supports your point. Let’s revisit the summer sale for a couple examples:

Headline: Cool off. Low temperatures and low prices here.

Image possibility: Thermostat set to a low temperature.

Headline: Visit Saturday for skimpy summer clothes at skimpy prices.

Image possibility: Woman’s shoulder. She’s wearing a fashionable strappy top.

Start with a verb

Action words and active sentences will get the momentum started.

Eliminate unnecessary words

When you are speaking in public, you avoid saying “um” and “ah,” because unnecessary words dilute the message. Do the same in your writing, especially your headlines. Avoid these words:

  • Just
  • Very
  • That
  • So
  • Words that end in –ly
  • Articles (a/an, the)

Forget facts

Motivational speaker and sales guru Zig Ziglar said, “People do not buy facts. They buy benefits if they can see those benefits translate for their own personal use.”

In his popular “picture close” presentation, Mr. Ziglar gives an example of a real estate ad that ran in The New York Times unsuccessfully for weeks. The ad talked about characteristics of the home such as tile, garage, convenient location, hot water heat, and so on. For weeks the ad didn’t produce a sale, so the owner stepped in and wrote something different.

The owner changed the headline to “We’ll miss our home.” She went on to describe scenarios that a potential buyer might experience in the home such as a shady yard in summer and the sound of frogs in spring. The ad ended with, “We hope you’ll buy our home. We don’t want it to be alone at Christmas.”

The writing in the second ad is simple, yet effective. It showcases the benefits by setting the scene.

Write as few words as possible

When writing headlines, you want to get to the point. Fast.

For a web page or blog post headline, you must be descriptive enough for the search engines to know what you’re talking about and catchy enough for the reader to want to read on and share the link via the social web, but you only have 8-10 words to accomplish this. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one you can get better at with practice and testing.

What are your tricks for writing a catchy headline? Hope you’ll share in the comments.

This is a guest post by Sara Lancaster, who is the website content writer behind No. 2 Pen, a Denver web-marketing agency. She recently published 103 Ways to Create Sharp Blog Content, which is a free download available on