Headlines are the first shot in the war for the reader’s attention.
Done well, they entice and inform.
Done badly, they languish unnoticed in the dark, unforgiving void of the internet.
In my experience, some people have a knack for headlines and others have to work at it.
Don’t despair if you’re in the latter category, there’s plenty of tricks you can employ to make your headlines stronger.
It all starts with a bit of brainstorming.
Think about the 3Ws
- Who are you writing for?
- Where is it being published?
- What do you want to say?
Your headline has to reflect its audience. If you’re writing for the business community then keep it brief and informative.
If you’re writing for fellow bloggers, make sure it’s conversational and approachable.
If you’re covering news, you’ll want to be direct and sparing.
Imagine your reader, imagine talking to them in conversation and adjust your tone accordingly.
The forum you’re publishing on makes a huge difference.
The perceived wisdom with headlines has always been the briefer the better. Most people in the industry would tell you to keep it between 50 and 70 characters.
But that’s not always the case.
For example, articles on the popular content site Medium tend to be much longer. Here’s a few I culled from the site this morning:
- Forget The 10,000-Hour Rule; Edison, Bezos, & Zuckerberg Follow The 10,000-Experiment Rule
- I interviewed at five top companies in Silicon Valley in five days, and luckily got five job offers
- The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don’t Want To Be Accused of Sexual Harassment
If you are writing a longer headline, make sure the first three words count. Those are the ones that will hook your reader so make them do the heavy lifting.
And don’t forget that web copy is shared in multiple places – your headline has to work across all social media.
If you’re writing a how-to article then put that front and centre in the headline.
If it’s a list, use numbers.
Don’t be afraid to start with ‘I’ if it’s a personal essay.
And change it up by asking a question – Are You Using LinkedIn Effectively? – just make sure you answer it in the post!
The keyword controversy
There are those who say stuffing headlines with keywords kills creativity.
There are those who say keywords are a necessary evil if you want your copy seen.
I come down somewhere in the middle.
While SEO is a valid consideration, clarity and common sense come first.
And making your headline Google-worthy should be seen as a challenge, rather than an obstacle.
At its heart, writing online headlines is simply finding out what web users want to know, and then giving it to them.
Sometimes the oldest tricks are the best.
If you’re really struggling with a headline, try some attention-grabbing techniques such as alliteration, puns or rhyme.
Even if you decide they’re too cheesy, this kind of brainstorming can often open the floodgates to more ideas.
Take your time.
Crafting a good headline requires thought and too often writers rush this vital part of the process.
I like to write a draft headline as a place setter and then write my article.
Once the content is finished, I’ll go back and decide if the original headline still works. If it doesn’t, then it’s back to brainstorming.
If you’re stuck on a headline then give up on the notion of coming up with something brilliant and just make a list of terrible options.
Write a long list, reject most and keep going until you find the nugget of gold that’ll best represent your piece.
It can be very tempting to head into clickbait territory, but resist.
Online readers are impatient, savvy and wise to all the marketing tricks. They really don’t like feeling manipulated or patronised.
It’ll also give your writing an air of falseness that will turn off potential followers.
Use simple, but effective, language
You need bold language to catch a reader’s eye.
Keep it in plain English, but make sure every word counts.
And don’t sacrifice clarity just so you can use some exciting prose.
Because no-one wants to end up on a Buzzfeed list of ‘WTF Newspaper Headlines’