In a world full of noise, how do you get people to actually read what you write? It takes more than good content or great design. The most important part of writing an article is the headline.
If not, don’t publish until you’ve got a catchy headline. Concentrate on this, and you’ll get more readers, more buzz, and more love.
Newspaper Clipping - Catchy Headline
Photo credit: John Taylor (Creative Commons)
How to write catchy headlines
Too often the headline is the most neglected part of writing an article. People just gloss over it without taking much time to consider it. In their minds, it’s the cherry on top.
No, friends; it’s not. The headline is the sundae.
I sometimes deliberate over titles for 30–60 minutes before settling on one that works. And I often go back and change them. This is what it takes to write a good headline.
If you need some help concocting catchier headlines, here are a few simple tricks:
1. Use numbers - There’s a reason why so many copywriters use numbers in their headlines. It works. Do an experiment: Go to the grocery store, and scan the magazines in the checkout lane. Look at the front-page article headlines. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fitness magazine or a tabloid; many of them will be using numerals to start off the headline. There aren’t really any rules (as far as I know) regarding what numbers work best, but people typically only remember three to five points. That said, sometimes a really obscure number like 19 or 37 can catch people’s attention.
2. Use interesting adjectives - Here are some examples:
3. Use unique rationale - If you’re going to do a list post, be original. For example consider the following:
If possible, never use things. Please, for the love of Pete, don’t use things. You can do better than that.
4. Use what, why, how, or when - These are trigger words. I typically use “why” and “how” the most, because I’m often trying to persuade or enable someone. Typically, you’ll use either a trigger word or a number. Rarely does it sound good to do both.
5. Make an audacious promise - Promise your reader something valuable. Will you teach her how to learn a new skill? Will you persuade her to do something she’s never done before? Will you unlock an ancient mystery?
What you want to do is dare your reader to read the article. Without over-promising, be bold. Be seductive (in the most innocuous way possible, of course). Be dangerous.
And then deliver what you promised.
Try this formula - Here’s a simple headline-writing formula: Number or Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise
Example: Take the subject “bathing elephants.” You could write an article entitled, “How to Bath an Elephant” or “Why I Love Bathing Elephants.”
Or you could apply this formula and make it: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bathe an Elephant Indoors”
Another (more serious) example: Take a bold promise like “selling your house in a day.”
Apply the formula and you get: “How You Can Effortlessly Sell Your Home in Less than 24 Hours”
People don’t want to be tricked into reading something boring; they want to be drawn into something exciting. Make it worth their while. Take extra long time to consider what headline will grab people’s attention the most, and make sure that it describes your content in an honest, but attractive, way.
Rules that will give you the perfect headline, every single time. Headline writing is an art, not a science, Here are 20 guidelines to help you write great headlines:
Catchy. The first job of a headline is to grab the reader's attention. It should do so appropriately and honestly, of course, but the headline is the way that you draw a reader into a story. If it doesn't grab attention, it doesn't matter what else the headline does. However, do not overdo it -- if your reader is drawn to the story, and the headline oversold it, the reader will feel cheated and swindled. That's not exactly the emotion you want to incite in your readers, I would guess.
Be useful. The best headline will tell the reader what he will get out of reading this story. Will it teach you something you've always wanted to learn? Will it help you become smarter, stronger, better looking, better in bed? Will it help you become more informed? Will it give you the juicy gossip you've been craving? Whatever the story will do, it should have some use to the reader. The more useful, the better.
The main point. The headline should summarize the main point of an article. This is another of the headline's biggest jobs (some would argue the biggest job). So to write the headline, you need to read over the article (or re-read it, if you wrote it) and figure out what the main point of the article is -- and if it's well written, that shouldn't be too hard. If you don't get the main point, or think that there's 3 or 4 main points, the article hasn't done its job. It should be rewritten. But at any rate, find that main point and summarize it in the headline.
Curiosity. The best headlines will summarize a story, but leave you curious to find out more. "Why You Should Care About Technorati" or "The Secret to Making the Perfect Snowball" will leave some readers wanting more (maybe not all of you).
Succinct. Wordy headlines will lose a lot of readers. Sure, people should be able to read 15 little words, but they expect to get their info quickly. Don't ask me why. Shorten a headline down to 5-10 words, eliminating all that's unnecessary.
Controversy. There's no better guarantee of catching a reader's attention than to stir up a little controversy. Be bold, dare to incite a little indignation, or get the pulse racing just a bit. Don't be moronic about it though. You don't need to incite a riot.
Specifics. Specific headlines are better than vague ones. Throw in a detail or two that will catch a reader's interest -- but don't throw in the kitchen sink. This is why numbers in headlines work, no matter how many people hate them. You're not going to give me "A bunch of tips" but instead "10 tips".
Magazines. If you want to get inspiration, look at the cover of magazines. Half the time they get them wrong, but sometimes you'll find a great headline. I hate it when they oversell a story, but those magazine editors sure know how to write sexy headlines. Skip the Enquirer -- they oversell. But magazines know the secret of headlines: it's the headlines (and the sexy model) that sell the magazine. Same thing with your blog headlines.
Blogs. This should go without saying, but I'll say it nonetheless -- read good blogs. The successful blogs got where they are because they provide awesome content with headlines to match. And blogs that have been successful for some time have usually perfected the craft. Use them for inspiration.
The How To. There is probably no type of headline more likely to do well than the How To headline. Start a headline with those two words, and follow them with a skill that many people would like to learn, and you've got a winner. Well, most of the time. Don't overdo it.
Lists, with numbers. Yes, they're overdone, but that's because they work. Look at a list of the most popular articles on delicious or Digg, and you'll find list headlines -- at least a few. I overdo them, actually, because just about every post I write has a list. It's just the way I think. And if my post has a list, my headline will likely have a list as well. I had to resist suggesting a list headline for this post. "20 Tips for Writing Great Headlines"
Write several versions. Challenge yourself to write the best headline possible. Don't just go with your first attempt. Write that down, then do 3 or 4 more tries. Test each headline by saying it out loud. Look over these guidelines and see if any of them will help the headline. Say it out loud to your spouse or best friend or your mom. Which one catches their attention? Sometimes a clever headline will sound confusing to others.
Question headline? Sometimes the best headline poses a question. It makes the reader want to find the answer. Or it alerts the reader to an interesting debate. Give the question headline a try -- it might work for your article.
Write a command headline. Tell the reader what to do. Sometimes a command headline can be too bossy -- but other times, it's just the advice the reader was looking for.
Be detached. In print journalism, a detached editor writes the headline. The writer is too close to the story, and is biased. She thinks every word is important, every point is the main point. And no headline is good enough. If you're writing your own blog headlines, you should become detached. Write a headline, leave it for awhile, come back to it. Try to see it as an outsider would see it -- someone who hasn't read your article yet.
Find balance. You need to find the middle line between being boring and being crazy. It's not always easy. "20 Ways to Write a Great Headline" is better than "Headline Writing" but not as strong as "Write a Perfect Headline or Your Blog Will Fail and So Will You".
Key verb. Try this exercise: find a strong verb that best fits the story. Then find other words in the story to go around the verb to form a sentence that summarizes the story. Then shorten that sentence to make a great headline.
Short, active words. Prefer short words to long ones, and active words to passive ones. Avoid jargon and acronyms. And feel free to be creative and break any of these rules if it works.
Double check. Before you go to print with your article (or press "Publish"), check over your headline again. Read it for spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, punctuation mistakes, factual mistakes (the headline is the worst place to make these mistakes). Make sure it makes sense, and that it does its job.
Write it first. Don't save the headline for last. It's too important, and when you're done with a post you just want to write the darn headline and be done with it. Write the headline first -- this allows you to know your main point before you even start writing. Then rewrite the headline later, and give it some time to get right.
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