For a newspaper reporter, there's nothing worse than waking up in the morning to find a terrible -- or worse, misspelled -- headline atop your big scoop. Nothing ruins a good, resume-worthy story faster than having a sleepy copy editor decide to spell "bucks" with an "f," as in: "MAYOR CAUGHT PILFERING BIG BUCKS."
The most grating part, as any reporter will quickly tell you, is that they almost always never write the headlines. But they'll be the first to tell you how important they are -- a good headline is the Holy Grail of entry points, guaranteed to ensnare readers who otherwise might never read your story.
This maxim is actually more important on the Internet, where people are already in a hurry and used to blowing through mountains of information in a matter of minutes. Often, a catchy, memorable, intriguing and all-around entertaining headline is the only shot you have at getting visitors to actually give your content a look.
And, unlike those ungrateful reporters, bloggers, content developers, SEO heads and other online copy writers can't typically blame a copy editor. Odds are you're your own writer, editor and coffee-fetcher. Feeling your pain, and still getting our own coffee, we at lifeBLUE wanted to offer a few tips for writing good headlines for blog posts, link bait, viral pieces and all other manner of social media content. So, here we go:
1. Be succint
Don't give all your good stuff away in the headline. A piece titled "Nightmare at Lambert International Airport As Drunken Passengers Refuse to Stop Screaming 'Cockpit' and Throwing Pretzel Bags While Bemoaning the Lost Genius of Jeff Buckley" may intrigue a few frequent fliers and JB fans, but others will see little reason to read further. Instead, stick with something a little shorter and attention-grabbing, something that leaves readers of all backgrounds wanting to learn more. Something like "Nightmare at Lambert" or "Nightmare at 35,000 Feet." We do miss JB, though. Tragedy.
2. Use active verbs and bold words
That's bold as in strong and connoting action and authority, not bold as in bold. Although, it is always a good idea to find ways to make your headlines stand out in color or size from the rest of the text. Using passive constructions like "to be" verbs and the past tense are shown over and over again in readership studies to be boring gateways to nowhere. You're only using a few words to lure people to your cache of content, so make them stand out and sound good and strong to the ear.
It's much easier to do this online than in print. Take a stand in your headline, call someone out or tease us with your amazing knowledge. If you really know why someone is a complete jerk, then say so, using bold words, in your headline. But being provocative doesn't necessarily have to be loud and in-your-face. Don't be afraid to provoke thought, either. Some folks might turn away from a headline blaring "Why Judas Iscariot Totally Sucks," so look for another way to bring people to your copy. How about: "Christ's Downfall Started With a Kiss." We're cool with JC, here, too, so we'll probably read both.
4. Classify the Copy
Social media sites like Digg and Reddit may soon render this rule obsolete, as stories simply headlined "Cool" or "Wow" will invariably be Dugg about 5,683 times. But it's still a good idea, especially for link bait and viral pieces, to give readers some semblance of what your content is all about.
5. Embrace lists and pictures
This is another online rule driven by social media and networking sites. While lists are incredibly standard, almost cliched means of communicating information, they're also never going away because people love to read them. Give us 10 easy tips or hints or reasons Karl Rove sucks and we'll devour each one. It's human nature to want something neatly packaged and chronological. Don't churn out list after list, but don't be afraid to throw some "Why XXX is Destroying America" or "Ten Reasons XXX Gives Me a Headache" list copy out there. The picture rule is simple. If you're posting on social media sites, put this little abbreviation (PIC) in your headline, assuming you have a picture. It's amazing how many high-traffic pieces become high-traffic because of that little abbreviation -- and because there's a great photo on the page, too. If you've got great art, let the reader know.
6 . Be Funny, Never Pun-ny and Think, Darn It, Think
Stay far away from puns in headlines. Very far. They're awful, old "tools" that readers today will recognize as lame and unworthy of their precious time from a mile away. Dedicate real chunks of time to crafting funny, entertaining, provocative and engaging headlines. It makes no sense to spend three hours writing a top-notch blog post or link bait piece only to slap some stupid, completely uninteresting and unappealing headline on top after 4.39 seconds of thought.
Got it? Speaking of JC, though, we'll leave you with one of our all-time favorite headlines. After a rain-swollen river threatened to flood a Pennsylvania town twice in two days, readers woke up the next morning to this gem: "Second Coming of Crest."
That, friends, is a keeper.