Your headline is the most important element of any article you write. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what happened right before you clicked through to read this post. If you’re still reading this post, you’re either bored, very polite or you want to learn how to write a great headline and you believe I’m going to deliver on that promise for you. For me, the purpose of a great headline is to get the reader to read what you’ve written. For others, it’s all about the click. I’m going to assume that most Journalistics readers care more about the former.
So how do you write a great headline? I’ll get to that… but first, a quick story… In one of early journalism classes, our professor used to make us read all the headlines in The New York Times throughout the week. Why? Because The New York Times employed the most talented journalists. It was great advice honestly – it’s amazing how good some of those headlines are, and how instructive that exercise has been in teaching me the art of headline writing. I encourage you to try this exercise for yourself. For the next week, read the headlines of the print version of The New York Times’ front page. You’ll notice a couple of things. First, I’ll bet you find more than a few articles you want to read. Second, I’ll wager you learn a new word or two – those journalists have pretty incredible vocabularies.
If you are a business-to-business marketing professional, try the same exercise with The Wall Street Journal. This newspaper employs some pretty talented journalists too – and they make otherwise boring business topics sound pretty exciting. This is a skill any business writer can benefit from learning – and The Wall Street Journal is a great place to start.
Back to the main point of this post, how can you write great headlines? In the world of blogs and short attention spans, I feel like we’ve lost (or never learned) the art of journalistic headline writing. Who can blame us? When a headline like “10 Tips to Write Kickass Headlines” is going to generate more traffic than “The Art and Science of Headline Writing,” how can you resist going for clicks? Likewise, a headline like “How to Write a Great Headline” will probably do better in search engines, drawing in new readers searching for information on the topic. So back to the original question and my attempt at an answer – what are you writing the headline for?
When writing great headlines, you have to think about the objective of the article, post or status update you’re writing. You have to consider the shelf life of your article and the interests and tendencies of your audience. What type of headline will work best to achieve the desired result of your writing? In general, headlines serve the following purposes:
- Get a reader to take action by reading what you’ve written – the most important purpose in my humble opinion
- Help your audience evaluate whether or not the topic you’ve written is relevant or of interest to them
- Provide a summary of what your writing is about, in as few words as possible
- Gives your reader a reason to click from the point of discovery (where they found your headline first) – this could be on your blog, in search results or in their social media feed – what will get them to click-thru to read more?
- Has keywords aligned to what they might be searching for – more important in the age of SEO or inbound marketing purposes
I could write a long article on this topic, but for the sake of your time and mine, here are some quick, bite-sized tips for headline writing:
- Less is more – keep editing until you get your headline to as few words as possible
- Read your headline out loud – does it sound interesting or exciting?
- Use words at the reading level of your audience
- Avoid punctuation and abbreviations
- Resist the urge to be too clever or funny – not all readers will get your jokes
- Sell your story – tease the topic you’re writing about
- Don’t forget about the 5 Ws and 1 H – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How – if you can get it in the headline, do it
- If you don’t have a style, use AP Style – if you don’t know what AP Style is, buy an AP Stylebook
- If you’re looking for clicks, consider a list or “top 10” type format to your headline – while I lean toward the tips above, a well-written list post can serve many purposes
- Test what works for your audience – look at your stats and analyze the types of headlines that drive the most interest from your audience
What are your tips from writing great headlines? How have you mastered the art of headline writing? I want to hear from you in the comments. Thanks for reading Journalistics!