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5-Point Checklist to Use When You Write a Headline

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 11.29.23

This simple 5-point checklist is a useful tool you can use as you write a headline (to keep yourself on track) and again after you write it (as a check-up for your newly-minted headline.)

The checklist works well for blog post titles, article headings, email subject lines, web page meta titles, subheads, image captions … pretty much any kind of headline.

This self-check is an important step in the writing process. Those who read your headline will decide within an estimated 5 – 10 seconds whether or not to continue reading the rest of the piece.

Yowzers. That’s not a lot of time!

If your headline does not get clearance from each item on the checklist, then rework it. Then run it through the list again until you are satisfied.

5-Point Checklist to Use When You Write a Headline with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter

5-Point Checklist for Writing Headlines

Check #1: The headline reveals a benefit

Identify the benefit you see in the headline. If you’re not able to do this, go back to the drawing board. The content of the piece is tied to this benefit and unpacks this benefit, but the headline must spotlight it. You must be able to identify the benefit from the headline content as it stands by itself.

Check #2: The headline communicates one point

Identify the one point you see in the headline. If the point is fuzzy – or if you have more than one point – it’s time to slash and edit. Too many points or no point muddies the waters for your reader.

Check #3: The headline is specific

What kinds of details does your headline convey: numbers, facts, statistics, descriptors that appeal to the senses, a deadline?

Here is an example. I first named this post “Checklist to Use When You Write a Headline.” It communicated a benefit (a practical tool a writer can use as a self-check) and one point (“do this when you write a headline.”) But it lacked specificity. So I added just two words (“5-Point”) at the beginning: “5-Point Checklist to Use When You Write a Headline.”

Check #4: The headline grabs attention

There are all kinds of ways your headline can capture the reader’s interest. Does it offer an unusual piece of news, useful information, intriguing explanation, or startling statement? (Here is a list of different ways a headline can grab attention.) 

Check #5: The headline's mechanics are in good working order

Check the headline’s 1) word count 2) reading level. Adjust accordingly! 

Word count

  • Article: 3-6 words
  • Email subject line: 27-77 characters
  • Web page title: 90-150 characters

Reading level

  • Aim for grade 7 or less (more about reading level here.)
  • Use strong, active verbs
  • Avoid puns, clichés, niche lingo

More writing tips for headline writing

How to Write How-To Headlines That Pull in More Readers ...

When Do Question Headlines Work?

Writing Better Headlines: Simple As 3 + 3 ...

7 Tips for Using Numbers in Headlines ...

Write a Better Headline When You Answer One Simple Question ...

Basics for Copywriting Headlines ...

Top 27 Copywriting Headlines Tips ...

The 9 Most Surprising Places You Need a Powerful Headline ...

How to Redeem a Bad Headline (So Readers Keep Reading) ...

10 words to use when writing headlines ...

The SELWAB Formula: great for writing leads and headlines ...

Try These 5 Proven Headline Formulas ...

Does Your Headline Do Its Job?

The 4 Us for Writing Powerful Headlines ...

More tips on our Writing Headlines Pinterest board...

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