Break Glass In Case of Copywriting Emergency
May 3, 2024

Break Glass In Case of Copywriting Emergency

Headline writing exercises to help you generate a lot of thoughts and ideas.

Nihal Atawane

When you’re starting out, writing 50, 100, 200 lines can be difficult. Sometimes, you hit a wall and your brain just doesn’t cooperate. So, here are some tricks that might help you get the engine revving.

Note that these are not designed to generate great headlines. But they will generate a lot of headlines, which in turn, might lead to a few great ones. 

For this exercise, I’m going to write sample headlines for a cat adoption campaign from the Chicago Cat Rescue (no, I’m not working with them. Yes, I love cats. No, you can’t generally pay businesses in headlines). 

I’ve divided them into three sets by order of how useful I think they are.


1. Use Data

Quick, sharp data points can make for punchy headlines.

For example:
2 out of 5 cats will die in a shelter. You could help them live in a home.

2. Compare & Contrast

Create an enemy to help your benefit stand out. In this case, you could make a point about how owning a cat is easier than owning a dog.

For example:
True friends clean up after themselves

3. Make it Personal

Put your reader in the hot seat.

For example:
Imagine spending your entire life in a 2x2 cage.

4. Hijack Idioms & Proverbs

Because the reader has some context, it lends itself to a good, unexpected twist.

For example:
They say cats have nine lives. We’re asking you to save just one.

5. Misdirect

A good ol’ misdirect can add some levity to your headline.

For example:
Do you admire strong independent women? Meet Lucy, a British Shorthair.

6. Use a Question + Answer Setup

These are especially useful with short, informal lines that get straight to the point.

For example:
Crave attention? Time to earn it.

7. Create a Tweaked Benefit

There’s no better example than this iconic L.L. Bean ad:

Go beyond the obvious. 

For example:
In the case of Chicago Cat Rescue:

For example:

The fastest way to get famous on TikTok.

8. Ask a Rhetorical Question

Similar to 6, but instead of answering the question, you let your proposition sit with the reader.

For example:
Who wouldn’t want to save two lives at once?


9. Use Antonyms

A little dramatic emphasis helps elevate pedestrian headlines to slightly-less-pedestrian.

For example:
One-time fee. A lifetime of love.

10. Use the AB-AC Scheme

Yes, headline writing can be like poetry. 

For example:
A new friend. A new reason to smile.

11. Raise the Stakes

Establish a standard and then raise it.

For example:
A good way to live a better life.

12. Use the Rule of 3’s

A slightly more formulaic version of the classic misdirect.

For example:
Low risk. Low maintenance. Low chance of striking out on dating apps.


13. Use Alliteration

For example:
Find a furry friend you’ll instantly fall for.

14. Use Rhymes

For example:
Save the day in the most adorable way.

15. Use Puns

I have a problem with puns in headlines (that’s a whole different essay). But done well, they have an audience and can be somewhat memorable.

For example:
You’re just a whisker away from changing your life furever. (two puns for the price of one!)

There might be more that I’ve missed here that form a part of your headline writing cheat-sheet. Feel free to share them below.

My parting advice is to use these with caution. They’re a means to an end. Now, more than ever, our industry needs great headlines to convince clients of our value as writers. Remember, in our business, the enemy of good isn’t bad—it’s mediocre.

Headline writing is always a quantity exercise. Yes, there are those among us who’re 100% natty, gifted by the copywriting Gods. But for the rest of us, the only way to good writing is to get the bad writing out of our systems.

Nihal is a senior copywriter at FCB Chicago. He's created campaigns for more than 300 brands over the last 10 years in 3 different countries. Connect with Nihal on LinkedIn.