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Build your house first

The best advice I've read about writing headlines

You’ve been tasked with writing a headline, a tagline, a campaign line, a whatever-kind-of-line and you’re stuck.

You’ve generated a few pages of options. Some of them sound good. A lot of them don’t. You’ve explored alliteration, puns, the rule of three, metaphors and similes.

But you haven’t cracked that killer line that does what it needs to do. And you can’t quite figure out why.

Get up out of your chair. Go and make yourself a coffee or take a walk around the block. And think about this quote by Ben Hughes in his interview featured in ‘Read Me’ by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood. 

Ben says that at the start of his career, he wrote, “beautiful, meaningless sentences that were universally praised for their poetry and universally criticised for lacking any real content.”

Then he realised: “You have to build a house before you can decorate it.”

You can’t start playing with copy too early. “Without a strong idea to hang your words on they’ll collapse under their own weight, shapeless.” 

We’ve all seen beautiful, meaningless headlines that don’t communicate anything. We can admire their craft and maybe the clever turn of phrase raises a smile but when we really read them, it’s difficult to get to the arresting new idea, the genuinely compelling call to action, the sticky nugget that will get us searching for the brand later.

And that might be why you’ve got stuck with your headline writing. 

So, forget the copywriting for a moment and go back to building the house. Ask yourself, “what’s the big idea?” And if you don’t know, find out. If there isn’t one, get one.

Scribble down everything that comes to mind and exhaust the idea. Look at it from different angles. Try to find a simple way to explain the benefits. Imagine different customers reacting to it. What’s in it for them? Why should anyone care?

Now step back and take a look at what you’ve written. You might just find your headline there.


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