Advertising executive John Caples once said, “I spend hours on headlines—days if necessary.”
That sounds great, but you probably don’t have that kind of time. You already spend enough researching, writing, and editing. By the time you get your article into the CMS, you may only have a placeholder title that’s been there since you first started the process.
You might have a quick brainstorm with your colleagues. Or maybe you just come up with something on the fly. Sound familiar? It’s something we’ve all done at some point, but it’s a false economy.
“If your headline doesn’t pull the browsing reader in and get them engaged in the piece, all the other work you’ve done was wasted,” explained Peter Beech, a copy editor at the Guardian.
How can you make sure you’re writing a catchy headline that does justice to the article behind it? I asked Beech and three other headline experts to share their best pieces of advice.
Read a ton of headlines
When authors and reporters offer writing wisdom, they always mention one tip: read a lot. The same goes for headlines.
According to Dan Mennella, former homepage editor at the New York Post, “Read headlines—as many as possible—so you become conversant in ‘headline speak.’” That way you start to understand what formats, styles, and even specific words make for an effective title.
Doing so can be as simple as setting up a Google alert for the latest content in your field and seeing what resonates. For a good starter course, CoSchedule offers a tearsheet full of 500 “power words” that help with building emotional headlines. If you want to go one better, sign up for a tool like BuzzSumo, which will show you the most popular headlines on a given topic.
Don’t get too clever or cryptic
The main objective of a headline is to convey what an audience should expect from the actual piece. For that reason, clear and descriptive beat clever and cryptic most of the time.
“Don’t live by the Forrest Gump rule,” warned Judann Pollack, executive editor at Ad Age. “A good headline is not like a box of chocolates. You should always know what you’re going to get.”
For example, when this Quartz headline tells you that “Mao Zedong’s Favorite Car is Now a Luxury Limo with Personal AC and Massage Functions,” you know exactly what information you’re going to find. Bloomberg’s attempt at covering the same story leaves potential readers slightly more confused, and therefore less likely to click: “Mao’s Red Flag May Need to Evoke Panda DNA to Beat Audi.”
Heidi Moore, a digital media consultant who has worked with publications like Mashable and The Wall Street Journal, agreed. “The biggest mistakes in headline writing occur when editors get comfortable with vagueness. Nobody’s curiosity is piqued by something vague,” she said. “Headlines should be entirely direct.”
However, that doesn’t mean your headline has to read like a dull press release. There’s still room for creativity, as long as it’s unambiguous. The best way to test that is to ask someone who wasn’t involved in the creative process. “Turn to a friend or colleague and share your suggested headline,” Moore said. “They should be able to tell you exactly what the piece is about.”
Seek out inspiration online
“Headlines have to do an incredible amount of work in such a small space,” Beech said. “Pound for pound, they carry the same density as poetry.”
That kind of pressure can leave you staring at your computer screen, unable to think of anything suitable. In those situations, head online for some creative inspiration. To find the right words, Beech relies on a dictionary website that lists English idioms, searchable by keywords. He also turns to Rhymezone, “because sometimes a cunning rhyme can make a great headline.”
If you’re still stuck, Manella recommended a more direct solution: “Look for a piece of content that’s on the same topic and try tweaking its headline.” Of course, nobody is suggesting you rip off other people’s work. But certain topics have specific angles so make a few small changes and test how it performs.
Don’t over-promise and under-deliver
Remember when everything in your Facebook feed was some variation of the “You’ll never guess what happened next” clickbait headline? Audiences quickly figured out these pieces rarely delivered on their promises.
“At one point, these headlines were wildly effective, but then, through saturation, they became absurd clichés,” Moore said. “If you’re trying to write a headline the same way you’d market a used car, it will inevitably fail.”
So how does she recommend coming up with a headline that’s enticing but doesn’t oversell the content and leave readers disappointed? “Find the most important, funniest, or oddest thing in the story and make that the headline,” she said. For example, while many media outlets have covered the border crisis, the New York Timesstill managed to cut through the noise by focusing on the human cost of the government decision to separate parents from their children. One story about a family is titled “’I Can’t Go Without My Son,’ a Mother Pleaded as She Was Deported to Guatemala.” It captures the essence of the topic and narrative perfectly.
If you can’t do that, you should probably question whether the piece is even worth publishing. “The hardest pieces to headline are the ones where the editor is asking: ‘Why did we even write this?” Moore said. “In those cases, all you’re doing is adding to the noise.”
Match the tone of the piece
Earlier this year, a British tabloid reported that a child with a dairy allergy was in a coma after eating his mom’s secret stash of Wispa, a popular candy bar in the UK. The headline? “Careless Wispa.” The editor who came up with that play on a George Michael song probably felt really clever, but the tone was jarring given the seriousness of the issue, and the newspaper was widely criticized.
“If the article is about something serious, you don’t want to go hunting for a pun that will have people snorting into their breakfast cereal,” Beech said.
You can avoid that path by taking a step back and reading the piece with a fresh pair of eyes. Maybe get someone who wasn’t involved in the editorial process to review.
“The headline process has to start with distilling the essence of the story. It must accurately reflect what’s in the piece and be tonally in sync with it,” Pollack said. “You don’t want to put a flippant headline on a story about a natural disaster, but if your piece is about cute cats, you can have a little more fun.”
Remember to think about SEO
Back in the days when print media reigned supreme, all a headline writer had to do was capture people’s attention. Now that person must also capture the attention of spiders that crawl the web ranking content for quality and relevance.
To make sure your content is showing up in search rankings, keywords in headlines are, well, key. “Because digital content is so dependent on SEO, your headline should include words that readers will actually be looking up on a search engine,” Mennella said. “You don’t want to cram so many in that it’s indecipherable, but they should be there.”
While SEO considerations do take some of the creativity out of headline writing, they can also make the process easier. “If you have a news piece about Lady Gaga, you’ll want her name in the headline, and preferably at the very start,” Beech said. “If she’s been doing something that involves other search terms—like performing at the Oscars with Bradley Cooper—your headline will pretty much write itself.”
This article originally appeared on The Content Strategist.
Jumpstart your freelance writing career by making a free Contently portfolio.