How to Write Great Headlines
How to Write Great Headlines
When writing online, you don’t have long to capture your reader’s attention. Some ‘research’ (note the single quotation marks!) reckons you have less than 4 seconds, or shorter than the attention span of the average goldfish, to make an impression.
So, headlines are key to having your blogs noticed and opened.
Here are three pointers to help you out:
1. Think like a reporter
Reporters, be they on radio, on TV, or in newspapers, have to attract a reader’s attention from the outset. So, if you’re stuck, just take a moment to look around you – good ‘blog’ examples are everywhere.
“Did Greece have a ‘madman’ strategy?” – BBC News website headline, 15th July 2017
This was a business headline that grabbed my attention last year. So, I opened it and read on:
“Was the Greek negotiating strategy with the Eurogroup designed to convince the rest of Europe that the Syriza government was mad?”
Hence, in the first couple of lines, this blog ticked the boxes with:
• A good title, or hook.
• An introductory summary which established the argument to be discussed in the rest of the blog.
2. Newspaper tricks of the trade
Newspaper headlines need to be short, pithy, and engaging. Consider some famous examples below:
• Notorious (“Gotcha!” – The sinking of the General Belgrano))
• Political (“It’s Paddy Pantsdown” – Paddy Ashdown’s affair revelations)
• Celebrity inspired (“Let me Go Go” – George Michael freed on bail)
• Mottos (“Where there’s muck there’s bras”, about a farmer’s wife who started a lingerie business from a barn)
• Absurd (“Freddie Starr ate my hamster” – say no more!)
• Funny (“Super Caley go ballistic – Celtic are atrocious” – Celtic lose to a lesser team, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, in the Scottish Cup)
There is no magic formula to great headline writing but here are a few guidelines.
i. Do not over-abbreviate
People often think that a headline has to involve as few words as possible. Not so – you should always strive for clarity over word count:
• Use active verbs wherever possible – do not sink into the passive tense just because you can save words; e.g. “MPs update expense guidelines” is much better than “Expense guidelines updated”.
• Use prepositions where necessary – resist the temptation to save space by replacing ‘and’ with a comma, otherwise you risk confusing the reader; for example, you wouldn’t say “Morcambe, Wise” would you?
ii. Avoid being overly descriptive
On the other hand, a headline should merely give a hint or flavour of the piece to follow, not spell out the subsequent story word by word.
Refer back to the first example in ‘Think like a reporter’ – there is no mention of “the Eurogroup” or the “Syriza government” in the title (even though they are crucial to the story); instead, the title personifies Greece as a person and uses everyday words to make the story sound accessible and immediate.
iii. Avoid being overly dramatic!
• As a rule, do not use exclamation marks – they look like you are trying too hard to be funny or stand out (note: I was being ironic in the sub-heading above).
• Do not go mad with a Thesaurus for the sake of it – debacle, farce, fiasco…or simply mess? Imagine that you are describing an event to real people down at the pub and modify your language accordingly.
iv. Be careful of clichés
Clichés tend to be a barrier to clear communication and expression.
They are overused and hence tend to be overlooked by readers, which is not what you want when crafting a memorable title:
• Mind the gap
• Size doesn’t matter
• Think outside the box
• Par for the course
• Fit for purpose
v. Limit jargon wherever possible
• It depends upon the audience you are writing for, but as a rule, try to avoid jargon in a title.
• It is perfectly acceptable to introduce jargon in the main body of the blog – the accepted way of doing this is to write it out in full and then add either an abbreviation or short explanation in brackets afterwards; e.g. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV)
3. Extra considerations when writing a blog headline
Online copy differs from newspaper copy in one important respect – it has to be found by search engines.
This requires indexing, or to put it in technical terms, Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
SEO is a whole different topic in its own right, and we’ll discuss how to SEO blogs in the next article in this series, but for the time being, it’s best to limit yourself to thinking about keywords.
Any good blog will have a keyword – this is one of the ways in which search engines (such as Google) determine the suitability and relevancy of blogs for a wider audience; i.e. your blog and website will be ranked higher as a result.
For the time being though, all you have to remember is that your headline should contain the keyword you will use for your blog.
So, for example, the keyword for this particular blog is ‘headlines’ – it appears in the title, and a number of times in the accompanying copy, so the search engine knows that if anybody is searching for advice on writing ‘headlines’, then this blog should be relevant and useful.
However, more of SEO in a later article – for now, just practise writing those headlines!