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3 Ways to write headlines under pressure

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This article is long, but there are 3 nuggets buried deep inside that's well worth your time. Skim it if you must but don't leave until you find those nuggets.

Reading Time 20 min

by Psychotactics

3 Ways To Write Headlines Under Pressure

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(You can read and listen to this article online, click on the cartoon)

Every year, 20 billion bottles of wine are produced.

And 80% of those bottles are closed with a single substance. A substance called cork.

The cork, as you’d suspect, comes from bark of the cork tree

The bark has to be harvested, and then you get the cork for those 16 billion bottles. But there’s no hurrying the process of cork production. A tree must be at least 25 years old before the bark can be harvested.

After that, it can be stripped of its bark every nine years. Even so, the first stripping is totally unsuitable for wine and used only for industrial purposes. The second stripping still lacks the quality needed. It may take well over 40 years before the cork is considered good enough to put into a wine bottle.

As you can see, a cork tree can’t be rushed. Good headlines too need a little time. But in today’s world, we need headlines for our newsletters, podcast titles, webinars, and workshops.

But is it really possible to turn out a great headline almost immediately? Or do we have to wait?

What we’ll cover in this article is the concept of headlines in a hurry. We’ll learn three ways to write great headlines and to write them under pressure.

But we'll have fun, and instead of just learning three ways, we'll go back to grammar class.
Method 1: Headlines with AND
Method 2: Headlines with EVEN
Method 3: Headlines with WITHOUT
----------------
Method 1: Headlines With AND

Remember Windows 3.1?
I sure do. I was a cartoonist still living in Mumbai, India at the time. And that’s when I got my first computer. It was a 386 and top of the line with programs such as Corel Draw and Photoshop.

Right before I got the computer I would go through the tedious task of drawing a cartoon, photocopying it several times and then colouring each version. Clients wanted to see the same cartoon rendered in different colors and I’d spend trips back and forth to the photocopy shop.

Let’s say I got to know the photocopy guy quite well.

But it also wasted a lot of my day

Then along came Windows 3.1 and I was able to scan and then colour my cartoons in under half an hour. From paper to the computer was my big leap forward when it came to cartoons.

And yet several years later when I moved over from cartoons to copywriting, I struggled a lot with writing headlines. Every time I sat down to write headlines, I’d get the blue screen of death in my brain. Until the day I figured out the incredible power of AND in moving a headline forward.

AND?
When writing a headline, all you have to do is add the conjunction AND and your headline seems to dart forward.

Let’s take a few examples, shall we?

How to raise your freelance rates
How to raise your freelance rates (and get a greater number of clients)
How to create magic with your brand stories
How to create magic with your brand stories—and engage new readers every time you publish
How to keep fit over age 55
How to keep fit over age 55 (and still eat everything you want)

What did we notice with those AND headlines?

The first was the sheer simplicity of the headline. We start the headline as if it’s going to be a really short one. e.g. How to raise your freelance rates. Then as an afterthought, we add the AND.

What this tends to do is give your headline more oomph. The first part of the headline, without the AND is good enough, yet the second part allows the headline to move your client forward. Which is why the AND headline has a far greater curiosity factor than the headline without the conjunction.

When writing AND headlines I use the parenthesis or the em dash

The em dash is the long dash, used when you seem to be breaking a thought mid-flow. It seems like you’ve already finished with the thought. For example: How to create magic with your brand stories.

Then suddenly the em dash shows up out of nowhere talking about “new readers”. It’s brought in a new thought—a much richer thought. Now your headline reads as: How to create magic with your brand stories—and engage new readers every time you publish.

But you don’t always have to use the em dash

You can just use the parenthesis instead. The parenthesis does something similar to the em dash. It creates a continuation of the thought, and the client feels a greater tug towards the AND type of headline.

Visually too, the headline is more arresting. When you look at the headlines side by side, or even in your inbox, the second headline seems to say a lot more. But because there’s the em dash or the parenthesis, it’s like you’re getting some breathing space as the reader.

If you wondered why you had to sit in boring grammar class, well, now you know. You’re in headline grammar class, and you just found out how to use AND, em dashes and parentheses to good effect. Like Windows 3.1 (bless its soul) which got me from a bit of a struggle to super-fast execution, you too can build a headline in next to no time by using the AND.

But is there a good way of using the AND type of headline successfully?

Sure there is.

The best way to use the AND headline well is to write the first part. e.g. How to write irresistible calls to action. Then you walk away. Your headline is already super-yummy. But when you come back, several hours later, your brain will have something to add to the headline.

So your headline will read like this: How to write irresistible calls to action (and increase CTR by 30%). The space between writing the first and second part of the headline isn’t necessary, but it does make for better headlines.

Keeping a break between activities helps your brain hum in the background and come up with a far superior idea than if you simply jumped on the first possible idea that comes to your head after using AND.

Ok, first part of grammar class is done.
Let’s go to adverb land; the land of EVEN.
—————
Method 2: Headlines with EVEN

I’d never heard of the comedian called Michael Jr.

Then one day, I’m lying on the sofa time scrolling through Facebook and this video pops up. In the video, Michael Jr. is talking about how comedy works. And here’s what he says:

This is how it works

First, there’s a setup, and then there’s a punch line. The set up is when a comedian uses his talents and resources to seize any opportunity to ensure that his audience is moving in the same direction. The punchline occurs when he alters that direction in such a way that was not anticipated by the audience.

He’s talking about the adverb

Yup, Michael Jr. doesn’t know it, but he’s just given a quick grammar lesson. And that’s precisely the grammar lesson you can use in your headlines by using the adverb, “EVEN.”

When you use EVEN in your headline, you’re doing what Michael Jr. is talking about. You’re taking the audience in a specific direction—and then moving them to the punchline, which isn’t quite anticipated by the audience.

Hah, you’re eager for grammar lesson No.2, aren’t you?

Well here goes:
How to rank high on Bing
How to rank high on Bing (even with low Google rankings)
Why you should raise your freelance rates
Why you should raise your freelance rates (even if you’re not sure you’re worth it)
How to quit your day job
How to quit your day job (even if you’re cash strapped)
How to travel First Class
How to travel First Class (even if You’re dead broke)
See the setup and the punchline?

It’s everywhere, you know, this setup and punchline. When you read The Brain Audit, you have the concept of the problem and the solution. That’s a setup and punchline. When you look at nature, you notice a branch, then a twig.

A snowflake has the same set up and punchline. And of course, when we go to headline land, the adverb EVEN creates a powerful punchline. It brings out that extra bit of information that you’re simply not expecting. And in doing so, it gets and keeps your attention.

Just like the AND, it helps to use the parentheses or the em dash

And just like the AND, there’s no rule (at least that I know of) whether you use the em dash or the parenthesis. Just be sure to use it because it creates that setup and punch line both visually and intellectually.

Visually you can see there’s a separation, but intellectually you see that extra bit showing up. And you weren’t particularly expecting the headline to go in such a weird direction, were you?

So remember: set up, punchline. That’s the power of EVEN.

We’ve covered AND and EVEN.

Should we go to the third grammar lesson? Let’s head to WITHOUT, which happens to masquerade as a preposition adverb and conjunction. Even if you can’t remember where it sits on the grammar hierarchy, WITHOUT does a pretty cool job when you’re tired of using AND and EVEN. Let’s find out how.

————
Method 3: Headlines with WITHOUT

To write a headline with WITHOUT, all you have to consider is the opposite. And you can do it with random headlines.
How to raise your prices
How to raise your prices without losing clients
How to raise your prices without increasing the quantity of product
How to raise your prices without considering the competition
How to raise your prices without the accompanying fear factor
When you write a WITHOUT headline, guess what you’re really doing

Yup, you’re bringing up the objection in your head. Notice the second part of the headlines? They brought out the fear of losing clients, of needing to increase the quantity of product, the fear of competition and yes, the fear of fear itself. All of these are obvious objections to your premise or article.

So what’s a grammar headline writer to do?

Why it’s perfectly simple, isn’t it? All you really need to do is write some sort of headline and then think of all the reasons why it's not a good idea. Or at least why you’d have some objections to that idea.

Let’s take an overly simple headline like:
How to lose weight in two weeks.
What are the objections to losing weight?
- You’re a foodie
- You don’t want to go on a crazy diet
- You don’t care about exercise

And then you slappity-slap on the objections to the first part of the headline. Ready?
How to lose weight in two weeks (without giving up your foodie habits)
How to lose weight in two weeks (without going on a crazy diet)
How to lose weight in two weeks (without needing to exercise endlessly)
And there you have it—WITHOUT comes to the rescue.

Isn’t grammar wonderful?

We should really do a summary, but what would we cover?

We already know the three methods to make our headline stand out. All it takes is just three parts of the grammar universe: AND, EVEN and WITHOUT. AND gets your headline moving boldly forward, EVEN does this little setup and punchline trick and WITHOUT, WITHOUT is all about objections.

See, those Grammar Nazis were right.
You should pay attention your grammar because even if your brain feels like it’s running on Windows 3.1, you’ll still be able to turn out super-curious headlines.
———
So what’s the ONE thing we can implement today?

Remember the advice you got about writing part of the headline first and then going away? Well, here’s a reminder. You may be so very excited at your proficiency at grammar class that you may forget to take that break.

Leaving that task unfinished ensures that your brain brings up (and rejects) many options. Eventually, when you go back to your headline, you’re likely to get a far superior headline than just the first one you think up.

Put space between all activities. This article was written over a period of three days. The outline on one day, part of the article on another and finally the article was completed on the third.

And only after these three days, did it go for an edit. A headline may seem almost puny when compared with an article, but letting the brain relax helps you get a far superior output.

And that’s pretty much it.
Grammar lesson over.
School’s out.

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