How NOT to write headlines

Headlines

Before I get into today’s pet peeves rant, consider why we worry about writing headlines at all and what we hope they will accomplish. I think this comes down to two things:

  1. In a world where we are all inundated by more information than we can possibly process, we want the article or story we’re writing to stand out from the crowd, to make the reader stop scrolling down a list of a hundred other headlines and say, “Wait! What’s this?”.
  2. To provide the ultimate and most accurate mini-summary of what the article to follow has to say.

Most headlines today do neither of these things. And yet we have article after article in the media and on the net telling us what this author and that marketer constitutes a “good” headline.

And then what happens? The suggestions become a kind of “law of headline writing” which evidently everyone feels compelled to obey.

I don’t want to single out any specific author because they are legion, but to use one recent article as an example, the author states that

“While short, a headline has to stand out from the crowd of headlines running down a user’s screen.”

and then offers these suggestions:

“there are specific formulas that will attract more readers. For example, the ‘How to’ formula is popular, as it indicates the reader will learn something useful in an easy presentation. Also, ‘What You Need to Know’ is effective, as it creates a sense of urgency in the reader, especially when it hints that the reader may not know everything.”

and

“Numbers are effective for many reasons. They help construct articles, which provides organization. Not only does this help when you write the content, but it easier for the reader. When you use numbers in the articles, you create a list.

Lists are highly popular because they make reading easier. People want structured content, and they want easily digestible content. Using numbers in your headlines will set you up with both.”

and

“A reader doesn’t just want ‘3 Tips to Improve Work Productivity’; they want ‘3 Proven Tips to Improve Work Productivity.’  Likewise, ‘Tips and Tricks to Whip Your Body in Shape’ isn’t as appealing as ‘Secret Tips and Tricks to Whip Your Body in Shape.'”

At one time, this may have been good advice. The problem is it’s now treated as immutable law and everyone uses them. And for that reason, headlines constructed according to those laws no longer stand out.

Now I use an RSS reader (Feedly) to keep track of dozens of blogs, newsfeeds, and forums whether I am at my desk or on a mobile device. What I see is row after row of articles that follow these laws and everyone of them looks like exactly the same article I saw yesterday and the week before.

The emphasis on writing good headlines is still important. But put a little thought into constructing them and make an effort to intentionally depart from the “laws of headlines”. The goal is indeed to make your headline stand out so don’t write the same headlines everyone else is writing.

/rant out

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