You had me at the headline
Back when I was a daily news reporter, I had it easy. All I had to do was drum up the stories, ask a few tough questions and bang out a few hundred words. Then I tossed over my shiny new masterpiece (or bird cage lining) to the copy desk. They had the thankless job of cleaning it up and adding the crown jewel – the headline. These are arguably the most important three to ten words of the piece. These few words will determine how many readers you get, if any.
I have long known and understood this, but I didn’t truly appreciate the fine work of my great editors until their job became my job. It’s relatively easy to write the paragraphs. You’ve been learning about that since first grade. Headlines, and I’ll toss in subheads, on the other hand are an entirely different matter. It boils down to this:
Bad headlines leave you bored and/or confused.
Okay headlines give you and idea about what you are going to read.
Great headlines not only let you know what you are about to read but make you eager to read it.
Really awful headlines make you think you’re about to read one thing when really it’s something else entirely.
Funny headlines happen when the editor doesn’t realize that what he’s written also means something else. Grandmother of eight makes hole in one
So, how do you write great headlines? I wish I could answer that with authority, but I’m still working on it. If you are expert, please leave a comment, or better yet, write a blog post for us! Meanwhile, I’ll share with you what I’ve picked up so far.
- As with any type of writing, it helps to read what you want to write. Pay attention to headlines. Which ones make you want to read the article? Why? Which ones don’t? Why? Is it because of the subject matter or the words themselves?And then, practice and practice some more.
- Write several headlines for the same story. Try a short one, a long one, a funny one and a serious one. Try writing them for different audiences. Write headlines for stories you didn’t write. If you see a bad headline, try to come up with a better one. Sign up for Twitter and post news articles with your own headline.
- Questions are a great way to grab reader’s attention – especially for blog posts and Facebook. Use them carefully, however, as they can also come across as lazy.
- Intrigue is good – you can tease the reader into reading the story.
- Provocative is good too, but make sure the story delivers.
- Think mini story – at the very least the headline should summarize what the story is about. I often write a headline of no more than ten words before I start the story. This helps me focus my thinking and be very clear about what I want to say.
- Clever is great, but if you can’t think of anything clever, start with something basic.
- Don’t exaggerate. Maybe you will get someone to read the story, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like it.
You can find Seven more Tips written just for WordPress writer at the WordPress experts blog.
One of the most important attributes about headlines is a lack of clutter, which is just as important in life as it is on paper. For another perspective on stuff, check out Marvin Kane’s blog this week.