How Kurt Vonnegut could help improve your headline

January 24, 2013 | By | Reply More

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said it…

“If you can’t explain your story to a fourteen-year-old in one sentence then you’ve got a problem with your story.”

Something like that. Possibly.

And hell, if he didn’t say it, he should have. It sounds like something he’d say.

Anyway, the point is, it’s a useful little thought.

Indeed, I had it in the back of my mind all through my years studying creative writing and it served me well.

It’s had an influence on my direct-response copywriting too.

The point of the quote (or non-quote, if he didn’t say it) is that even if you think you’ve got a crazy clever idea for a story – if you can’t explain it in a simple way, you’re buggered.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write complicated stories…

I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen the latest Rian Johnson film, Looper (you should, it’s really good and he’s becoming a really good movie maker), but it’s a crazy time-travelling story with loads of twists and turns…


If you needed to explain it in one sentence to a fourteen-year-old child you could very easily say: a young man must kill his future self to save the world.

Simple. 12 words. Including the ‘a’, which isn’t a word. Or is it? Who knows? Who cares?

The point is that the idea is simple to understand – you can grasp it very quickly without thinking too much about it.


So, how’s this apply to direct-response copywriting?

Well, when it comes to writing headlines, you need to have Vonnegut’s quote (or non-quote) in your mind…

But you need to take it to a whole new level!


Here’s the deal:

If you need to explain your headline AT ALL – it’s screwed.

Yup. Sorry about that. You need to write a new headline.

You see, what Vonnegut was getting at (or not getting at, if he never said such a thing) was that if an idea is to be communicated well, even a child should be able to understand it very simply.

A headline is an idea…

It’s an idea expressed in words and therefore it must be simple to understand.

If it requires you to explain it beyond itself, then it has failed to communicate its message.

That sounds fair enough, right?

It almost sounds like common sense.

But be honest – how many times have you written something that you thought was great and then got someone else to read it and they didn’t quite get it and you had to explain it to them?

Hey, it happens to me all the time, so don’t feel bad.

At least, don’t feel bad if you have the courage to do something about it.

You see, if you want to be a good copywriter, sometimes you’ll have to delete stuff you like.

Because what you like isn’t always what works.

I’ve written a lot of headlines that I thought were really good, very clever and were going to do really well…

But then I’ve shown it to someone to get a second opinion and they’ve not got it.

Of course, I ignore them because I’m a genius.

But then I show it to someone else and they don’t understand  it either.

I explain it and they say “ah right, that’s really clever,” and I say, exactly!

But the headline’s dead already.

You see, when you’ve written your headline and it’s out there on the frontline trying to attract the customer’s attention, you aren’t there alongside it to explain what it’s MEANT to say.

It has to do that on it’s own.

So, when it comes to writing headlines, bear this in mind.

Be strong, be brave and be as self-critical as you can…

And when someone else doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to say in your headline, don’t dismiss them and think other people will get it – take the hint and go back to the drawing board.

Trust me…

Though it’s annoying to have to start again, you will write a better headline.


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About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

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