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From The Publisher: How to Write a Headline

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Make the reader’s first impression count with a crisp and evocative headline. A strong headline makes the difference between a handful of article or blog reads or your piece going viral. It can mean the difference between engaging a loyal following of readers or sinking into obscurity.

Your headline markets your story and tells the reader what to expect. It provides context, helping your reader decide if your article or post is worth reading. In short, your headline tells your reader what the story is and why it matters to them now.

In as succinct a manner as possible the headline must answer the following questions:

  • What’s this article or story about?

  • Why is this relevant to me?

  • What will I learn?

  • And, for certain types of writing, “How will it be actionable?”

The only thing you want the reader to have to decide is, “I am interested in this story.” Don’t rely on what is obvious to you about the story you’re telling and why it matters. Make sure your headline communicates those elements clearly.

Guiding Principles when Writing Headlines

  • Be direct Your reader is drowning in content possibilities as they scroll along. Be straightforward about the contents of your piece. The challenge with writing a poetic, artistic or clever headline is that it may obscure the contents of the article. In most cases the reader will pass it over because they can’t see the point.

  • Use language intended for your audience. Avoid jargon where possible and think of what makes sense in a regular conversation. Write as you would speak.

  • Exercise caution with excessively bold, provocative, absolutist or hyperbolic claims. This is known as clickbait, and if your article doesn’t match your headline’s promise, your reader will be annoyed. In the short term, it can drive traffic, but in the long term, it erodes your integrity as a writer. It is easy to recognize: if it exploits the reader’s emotions and insecurities, it’s likely clickbait.

  • Focus on what’s interesting. Don’t bury or hide why a reader should read the article.

  • Avoid obvious questions in a headline. If the reader doesn’t share this question they will skip over it.

  • Avoid biases in the headline. Be aware of your perspective and what its limits might be. Often biases show up in adjectives so check the ones you use and consider what they might unintentionally express.

  • Deliver on the promise of the headline. A loyal readership is based on trust. The headline sets the expectation and the following story must deliver on that.

Headline Checklist

  • Is the headline as clear as possible?

  • Is the headline specific enough?

  • Is your voice or point of view reflected in the headline?

  • Does it convey what is unique about the story?

  • Is it clickbait?

  • Is there unintentional bias in the headline?

When crafting your piece, it is useful to draft a clear working title up front. If you find this challenging, this might indicate that the story lacks focus. Take a look at it again, are the points you’re trying to make clear? Do they follow a logical order or does the piece need restructuring?

Make the reader’s first impression of your headline count! It’s the portal to building a loyal readership.

Some Examples:

  • Weak: “The Secret to the Perfect Relationship”

There is an intentional curiosity gap here. The title could better reflect the skills (the actionable secret) encouraged in the article.

  • Weak: “10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Rekindle Your Love Life”

This promotes an emotional response (insecurity) qualifying it for clickbait. It promises an unrealistic quick fix while only the vaguest sense of solutions. A better title is direct and reflects the core of the advice given.

  • Good: “Make Fear Our Ally”

This headline provokes curiosity and a potential solution for the reader. This article was about medical professionals using the fearful state an extraordinary health emergency can cause into a place of calm and innovative thinking.

  • Good: “A Remedy for Sleepless Nights Under Lockdown”

Again, this headline says exactly what the article is about and why it might matter to you.

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