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How Many Words Should be in an Advertising Headline?

By Rich Silver

There’s no dispute among copywriters about the importance of a world-class headline for a sales letter or ad. David Ogilvy, in Ogilvy On Advertising, said that on average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. John Caples said that the success of the entire ad campaign may depend on what is said in the headline.

With so much riding on a headline, how long…or short…should it be?

Today I'd like to share a quick tip about headlines I heard from Ted Nicholas.

Ted is a copywriter who has earned millions of dollars from his copywriting skills…and is considered one of the top direct marketers in the world. He has a rule about headlines that he believes makes headlines more compelling: Never write a headline that is more than 17 words.

Why 17 words or less? Because Ted says that only once in 23 years of writing copy has he found a headline that works with more than 17 words. He feels that having more than 17 words in a headline makes it too confusing.

Now, he's not talking about the headline and subhead under the headline together being 17 words or less. Just the headline. The subhead can then also be 17 words or less.

This rule is not set in stone (obviously, if you’ve studied the writings of other copywriting masters). And I know there are a lot of master copywriters who would scoff at a headline rule that restricts word count (for starters, See René Gnam’s excellent book Direct Mail Workshop).

But next time you're wrestling with a headline, keep the 17-word rule in mind. Maybe it will help you cut out unnecessary words and create a stronger sales message.

Crow Moon Marketing Recommendation: We highly recommend studying Ted Nicholas’s material for anyone in the marketing field. His Magic Words That Bring You Riches tape series is excellent. Find it…buy it…study it.

© 2009 Crow Moon Marketing

Rich Silver is a copywriter who specializes in writing direct mail packages and sales letters (print and e-mail). He has worked with some of the top direct marketers in the world.

Lorie Drozdenko is a graphic designer and illustrator, specializing in catalog, direct mail, and web site design.

You can view their Web site at

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