Writing the right headline for articles is a task I take seriously as publisher of this blog because a headline is the first chew the eye takes when it visits your site. A good headline is one that entices that eye to swallow and keep gnashing for more. If your headline is without spice, the article is assumed to be tasteless as well.


TIPS

Here are a few tips for creating a headline that not only curries
readers to keep reading but also helps keep your articles relevant in
search engine indexes. In a list of search returns the headline with
the most spit and spice gets the click!

1. Use Verbs. Words ending in “ing” are in current time, active in the
moment and not from the past or waiting in the future.

2. Use real words. Made-up words don’t index at all in search engines
because they are not words and translate as spelling errors.

3. Serve the spirit of your article. Your article title is not required
to appear word-for-word in your piece — it is better if it does
because it chains the text to your headline in a really grand way —
but the ideas expressed in your title must be distinguishable in your
article.

4. Be brief. The body of your story will tell your story. Don’t give
away all your secrets in an extended title.

5. Singular words work better than plural words. If you can leave off
the “s” do so because the single specific is better than the murky
many.

6. Titles that require punctuation should be re-written to not require
punctuation.

7. Dare to be interesting and teasing! Wondering what a title suggests
within the article is a good lure for deeper commitment from your
reader.

28 Comments

  1. I think you rewrote about 2/3 of my go inside article titles because for a long time I didn’t quite write any good ones. 🙂 I think I have improved since august of 2000.
    Oh – I replaced my hard drive, and did a file restoration – it was supposed to be a file by file clone of what was on my previous hard drive – and now windows won’t start because of a hardware configuration error. Huh? I have the same hardware as I did with my last hard drive. Oh well – have to hunt down a copy of windows xp to fix it again. Sigh.

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  2. Hi Gordon!
    Harr! Yes, writing the right title is extremely important in any kind of publishing or pitching ideas. The title is the first hook that shows you know what you’re doing as a writer. Yes, you are getting the idea of how to craft and effective title!
    😀
    I still contend — as I said in the other thread there — it sounds like your old HDD had a virus and now you’ve just cloned that HDD and its virus to your new HDD. I’ followed your blog entries on the problem with your HDD and its strange behavior suggests a virus to me.

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  3. Stinker. My friends suggested that it was because I overused bit torrent and did too much reading / writing on the drive and that’s why it died. Oh well. It may be time for a format / reinstallation of everything from scratch. I just need to find all the disks now… sigh again.

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  4. You share some good advice for any writer, David. A title is everything because it starts the story. If a title is poor then there is no reason to believe what follows will be any more interesting.

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  5. Hey Anne!
    Yes, that’s the point. A title is as important as the text to follow. A headline presents the writer to the world and few articles are able to recover from suffering a poor title.

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  6. That’s a tough question to answer Anne, because as you know, it is a gut instinct on what will work and what won’t work based on years of finding success and gutting failure as a writer. You soon learn to get a sense of what will work when you do it every day all day without relenting to taking the easy way out and just slapping a title on something and holding thumbs that it will keep.

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  7. You caveat about using “non-words” as words in a title (and in the text itself) is also helpful. Lots of writers do that to try and be funny but the effect is rarely successful.

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  8. Right on, Anne!
    Invention, and its cuteness, is not in the eye of the beholder but rather in the eye of the beheld.
    Here’s an article I wrote with an invented word in the title:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/11/10/virtual-relationshaping/
    Now the only place that “Relationshaping” appears with a definition and context with history is in my article but since I invented the definition, I don’t mind getting hit in the search engines for bad spelling.
    Hey, here’s the latest Google return on “Relationshaping“…
    Not too bad! I guess even non-words can create their own index niche!
    :mrgreen:

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  9. Congratulations on the Google returns on “Relationshaping.” This is a good topic for discussion and you made me think and plan on writing better headlines.

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  10. David
    Thanks for sharing some fascinating insight into how you arrived, in stages, at some excellent titles for the respective pieces you analysed.
    It was a very interesting experience to be edited before publication. It’s hard, initially, to re-read your own writing which has been altered (however minor the edits may be). The realisation that you’d kept the spirit of the piece whilst polishing some phrases gradually led me to feel that the collaboration was positive, and the work that you had done suddenly had me reading the post in a new light. After all, you can only self-review your own words a certain amount before they start to lose their meaning.
    So the challenge is on to find a really punchy title for the next article, which is in my head but yet to be digitised via a human interface device (ahem… the keyboard) and organised before submission :-D.
    -Fruey

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  11. I read in another post on headline writing that more time should be spent by most people writing good blog post headlines.
    The figure suggested was 50% of the time. While this might be a lot, it does underscore the importance of a good headline. I’m going to study Urban Semiotic’s headlines since they always do a good job and making me interested in reading the post.
    Another interesting statistic was that 80% of readers look at the headline, but only about 20% will dive into the post.
    All of this shows the importance of a good headline in grabbing readers in our short-attention span age.
    I know that I have to always remember to think about the headline, instead of just slapping someone onto a post. In this age of Google and other search engines (shout-out to MSN which seems to like me!), a great headline might be the only thing that brings in a random reader searching for that particular item that she or he is seeking.
    It’s interesting to think back to journalism school. I wrote for the newspaper for a little while to get some experience.
    The powers that be never let the reporter write the headline. I don’t know if it was because editors never knew how much space was available or if it was because reporters might be too close to their stories to create an effective headline.

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  12. Hey fruey!
    Yes, editing is a tender task. There’s a fine line between fixing and rewriting but both are the task of the Editor. Some authors take well to the process. Others race from the experience after biting you back.
    The hard thing to keep in mind for the writer is your editor isn’t trying to make the piece worse. The editor is trying to make the piece better — usually by clarifying the author’s unintentional vague intent.
    As an author, I have learned to find editors I really like and appreciate before any writing is done and then I tell myself during the editing process to “trust your editor – take their feedback and their comments in stride and accept them and move on…” Sometimes it’s hard not to take criticism/fixing/rewriting as a direct attack on your personality.
    I look forward to your next piece! I know you’ll come up with an excellent and dynamic title!

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  13. Hey Chris!
    I like your point about authors not writing their own headlines during your J-school days. It was the same way for me in high school and at UNL writing for the Daily Nebraskan newspaper. I think you’re right the editorial staff has an idea and an intent on how they want their headlines to be perceived and they prefer to write the headlines instead of the article author.
    It’s important to realize how different blog writing is than other traditional hardcopy authoring. In a blog you have the eye for a moment in a search return where only the title of the article is shown; or, if you’re lucky, you’re on a blog exchange where a surfer is forced to look at your site for maybe 25 seconds before moving on…
    You can extend that 25 second window will a good headline and a great opening sentence or two. Don’t clump up too much information into a single paragraph — it’s too hard to read online – and the eye craves white space. Let a sentence become a paragraph online and let the stranger’s eye become friendly to your site and what you are trying to argue in your post filled with passion and magnitude!
    😀

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  14. Hi David,
    Very true about the need to extend the 25 second window or obtaining a click from a list of search engine results.
    I haven’t been on the blog exchanges for a while, but when I was surfing for traffic, I remember seeing so many blog posts that I instantly judged weren’t interesting or worth my time based on bad or generic headlines.
    I probably missed some good posts filled with excellent ideas because nothing compelled me to dig in and read the post.
    I remember reading an article not too long ago that people can evaluate whether they want to read a web page or not in a blink of an eye based on what they see in that fraction of a second. (The same thing is true when I’m flipping through the television).
    Content must grab the reader before they surf on to the next page or back to their search engine.

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  15. Heya Chris —
    I agree that surfing the blog exchanges can be a painful experience: Bad grammar, lots of cursing, incomprehensible text – it’s a chore to find something worthwhile to read. I try to do a little surfing each day on several exchanges just to see what people are writing about but rarely does the headline tell me what the article addresses and when that happens I entirely skip the blog.
    I agree people make a split-decision gut call on whether to keep reading or not — and learning how to get that gut on your side is a big trick of any writing endeavor — but it is made more immediate and instant in the internet arena.

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  16. David,
    Thank you for the excellent editing of my post and for changing the title. And, thank you again for the tips on good title.
    I agree with Fruey that it is hard to see the edited piece of my own writing, but I know the way you edited it that made a difference. I have a habit of writing the way I think – it is almost like thinking aloud and I like it because it is my own thought process but fail to see the impact of it on others. Others might not follow it, because it is complicated.
    Thanks for making me see it!

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  17. Hi Katha —
    Writing something for public consumption is a brave and scary act because you always risk being misunderstood, misinterpreted or understood and then vulgarized for your beliefs. There is also the benefit, however, of being celebrated for the task of bringing new understanding to the world.
    I admire your ability to share your thoughts and life with us — that is a brave act in itself and the fact you are willing to express those experiences in words benefits us all.

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  18. I can only hope my headlines are any good. I wonder why I have gotten so few questions – or maybe it’s because i’m a relatively new blog and people want to see me established first – or maybe it’s because people think a no-cost ask any question service must have some strings attached and are reticent to ask their questions, thinking i have some hidden motivation other than just wanting to help them. Hmm.

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  19. Brevity is everything, Vampire Bear. Perhaps your visitors are worried about the length of your answers? Your video responses might be more effective if they were the quick punch line to the setup question.
    😀

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  20. I think you’re right, David. Unfortunately, I try so hard to sincerely answer people’s questions and sometimes that takes more than fifty milliseconds. Oh well. I hope to eventually catch on. Meanwhile, I will continue to take questions on the road.

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  21. Hi David,
    Writing headlines or titles is an art.
    As a newspaper copy editor, that was my job. As a news desk editor, I did not, however, lean toward the “pun” which, incidentally, tends to infuse the blood.
    I left that to the “fluff” editors.
    I tend sometimes to get an idea about a title, then write based on that title. I think it is better to get a vague idea about a piece, develop it– writing is a process– then title it.
    Donna

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