Dear Storyline, will the 50% Rule actually help me write better articles?

Photo illustration by Max Sheridan

Photo illustration by Max Sheridan

This week on the Storyline Blog we talk about the notorious 50% Rule. Haven’t heard of it? Maybe that’s a good thing.

Dear Storyline,

Last week, I had to write my first LinkedIn blog post for a client. Digging a little, I read a few articles on optimizing reader engagement for LinkedIn. That’s when I found the 50% Rule. Is it really true that I should be spending half the time writing my first paragraph and headline as I spend on an entire article? It seems weird to me, especially since this was a long-form piece I was working on.


Fact or Fiction

Dear Fact or Fiction,

Congrats on your assignment! Hope it’s the beginning of something great.

Funny enough, we’ve come across what you’re talking about, and we had the same conversation.

The origin of the 50% Rule

I believe the confusion here is that the original 50% Rule appears to come from advertising legend David Ogilvy. According to copyblogger’s Brian Clark, Ogilvy believed you should spend “half of the time it takes you to develop a piece of content on the headline”. I say “apparently” because, like so many quotes floating around on the Internet, this one gets thrown around a lot without reference to the original source, which I believe is Ogilvy on Advertising.

Ogilvy wasn’t the only adman who obsessed over headlines. Gene Schwartz, another copywriting giant, is said to have labored for a whole week to produce the first 50 words of his ads.

I think the main difference between what you seem to be doing and what Ogilvy or Schwartz were doing is that you’re writing a 1,000-word article for the web, while they were writing much shorter ads for print media.

I also think there’s probably a set of expectations readers bring to print ads in a magazine that don’t necessarily apply to reading a feature article in the same magazine.

But I’m assuming you weren’t reading copyblogger or David Ogilvy, and that you can distinguish between a Medium article and a Palmolive ad. I’m assuming you came across this rule of thumb packaged as content writing advice.

Here, for example, is Glenn Leibowitz at Inc. quoting LinkedIn International managing editor Isabelle Roughol. According to Leibowitz, Roughol suggests “spending as much as half your time writing a great headline and first paragraph” as writing the article itself.

What we have here is Ogilvy’s ad advice being co-opted by content writing professionals. It’s basically the same concept being applied to a different medium.

But can you just do that? Is writing articles according to the 50% Rule good advice? If you spend, say, a morning writing a rough draft for a 1,000-word article, should you spend half that time working on the first paragraph and headline?

Here’s where we stand.

Does the 50% Rule actually work for articles?

Short answer: obviously not.

Just imagine if you applied the 50% Rule to any short story that has ever made an impression on you. No matter how brilliant the opening is, or how much time the writer spent nailing it, the hard work is always in building an arc that sustains the narrative and carries readers through to the end, which is really where a story works or fails.

That process can get messy. You might lose track of an idea. You might even lose track of your audience. You might write too much or not enough, too vaguely or too idiosyncratically. Your pacing might be off. Your climax might not hit. If you want to tell a compelling story, a story that inspires readers to share it, you won’t ever get there with a hook alone.

To be fair, in his article, Leibowitz suggests the ideal LinkedIn article length is between 600 and 900 words. For a 600-word article, your headline and intro may be about a quarter of your entire word count. Anything over that, though, and you’d be hard pressed to ration out half your writing time on just a headline and hook.

There are other factors to consider too, like how much experience you have and how comfortable you are with the material you’re writing about. If you’ve been writing stories for years, familiarity with story arc will make the complicated part of structuring a story second nature. If you’ve written about your subject many times before, you’ll stumble less over explaining it accurately and persuasively to your readers.

Talent certainly plays a role. Some writers are just good with titles, or naturally think and write fast.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t obsess over a headline and first paragraph, or spend a lot of time working on them. Fiction writers certainly do.

Just don’t think if you spend a morning knocking out a 1,000-word article, and most of that time is spent actually knocking the article out, that you’re doing something wrong. Because, while killer hooks may turn heads, the story is still in the telling.