“Live. Die. Repeat.”
That’s the tagline of Tom Cruise’s new movie, Edge of Tomorrow.
Have you seen it?
Basically Tom Cruise gets the blood of an alien on him, which means that whenever he’s killed he returns to the day he got the alien blood on him.
He meets Emily Blunt and then he has to save the world.
A regular day at the office for Cruise.
To be fair though, it’s actually OK. In fact, I’ve just come out of the cinema and it inspired me to sit in a café to write this.
It just goes to show how random input from films, books and music can help inspire ideas. (See my previous piece for more on this idea.)
You see, I’ve been meaning to write about my approach to writing headlines for a while and the tagline gave me the opening I needed.
Well, you can summarize my headline approach like this:
Write. Delete. Repeat.
See what I’ve done there?
The good news is, when you adopt this approach to headline writing, there’s no risk of being attacked by time-warping, matrix-like aliens.
Or Tom Cruise.
So, how does this “Write. Delete. Repeat.” approach work and – more importantly – why does it work?
Write: Give quantity a chance to find quality
It’s almost impossible to write a headline in one sitting. In my experience, when it comes to finding a good headline, quantity leads to quality.
Your first words will always be a little loose, convoluted or – quite possibly – crap.
Don’t take it personally; few great ideas are born perfect. They must be shaped and molded, broken down and built back up.
To do that in your brain is very difficult. Possibly impossible, especially when you’re dealing with words.
Plus, it’s counter-intuitive.
Remember, ultimately people will be reading your headline on the page. How your words LOOK is just as important as what they say. Some words sound clear in your mind but are hard to read. They just don’t ‘click right’ visually.
That’s why it’s important you don’t try to conceive your headline entirely in your head.
You must write.
But of course, if you write the first idea you have, it probably won’t be too sharp.
Don’t worry about that. Just write.
Get your first idea down on the page and then…
Delete: Why you must conquer your fear of blank space
Get rid of it.
Really. Delete what you’ve written.
It’s no good.
Or rather, if it is any good, you’ll write it again in a moment. Just better.
Now, I know very well that deleting what you’ve written is hard. You’re probably like me and assume every word you write is another drop of pure gold from the treasure trove that is your beautiful mind.
I’m very much of the Hemingway school of writing and believe that writing is as much about crafting as it is conceiving.
I see words and sentences as little blocks of wood that tumble onto the page. Once there, it’s your job to pick them up and carve something from them…
Something clean and clear and good.
Was it Hemingway who said that he hoped he could write just one true sentence then he’d be happy? Something like that. With your headline, you should aim for the same.
And that’s why, once you’ve written your first idea, you must take a knife to it (or the delete key, which causes less mess) and carve it up.
Repeat: Nobody said it’d be easy
Sticking with Hemingway: did you know he wrote more than 20 endings to his highly acclaimed novel, A Farewell to Arms?
Not because he was indecisive. More because he was a writer who followed this “Write. Delete. Repeat” approach.
He believed he could always find a truer way; that he could get his message across with more clarity.
And he was prepared to sweat over it.
That’s the problem with copywriting – it’s a slog. There are no real shortcuts.
Indeed, I’m reminded of a line from a band called Spy Versus Spy. The line, a near scream, warns, “So, nobody said it’d be easy.”
And there’s the rub.
But you’ll find that the process of writing a good headline is made much quicker if you accept that you’re going to need to put some work in. You need to keep carving up your words until something good presents itself.
If you try to avoid the work and conjure up a headline from thin air, you’ll be stuck at your desk a lot longer than you need to be.
Write. Delete. Repeat.
So there you have it: the “Write. Delete. Repeat.” approach to writing headlines.
Perhaps you already practice something similar. I hope so, it means you’re already on the right lines.
The key thing to remember is that you must be disciplined and willing to delete. Don’t be precious with your ideas. Don’t be too protective over your words.
Trust yourself to be better. Trust yourself to work harder. And trust yourself to craft a headline that will truly engage your reader.
And when you do…
Delete it all and do it again!