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Crash course for killer headlines

How much time do you spend thinking about headlines for your online content (blogs, articles and even web pages)? Be honest.

If I’m honest I spend less than five minutes crafting a title. And I usually do it after I’ve written my piece. According to Brian Clark, who is a copywriting guru and incredibly highly regarded online, by doing so I break two of the most important rules of headline writing:

1)       Always write the headline first.

2)       Don’t rush the headline.

Writing the headline after you’ve completed your blog is the equivalent of cooking a three-course meal for your significant other and then promising that you have cooked the meal. It’s topsy-turvy. When you write the headline first, Clark says, your writing is more focused. You’ve made a promise that needs to be met, so the onus is on to you ensure that you deliver. When you do it the other way round (my way round) you’re cheating.

Clarke also says that while 8 out of 10 people will read your headline, only 2 out of 10 will go on to read your article or blog. So, you need to blow them out of the water immediately and make them beg for more. To do this, you generally need to spend more than five minutes frowning at your screen and then typing (and publishing) the first thing that comes to mind.

People who are serious about their headlines (and you should be if you’re serious about writing anything for public consumption) can spend up to 20 minutes getting it just right. In fact, some people say that they spend more time on their headlines than on the actual content. Personally, I think this is pushing it, but I won’t deny that coming up with a winning headline takes time.

Clark has compiled a collection of (11) blogs on how to write magnetic headlines. It’s well worth the read, but if you want a sneaky shortcut I’ll tell you what I took away from them, and give you a couple of tips that I have learnt all on my own.

Takeaways from the guru

1)       If you want to write well you have to read a lot. Any writer worth her salt knows that, but few apply the principle to headlines and titles. Newspapers, tabloids, magazines and blogs: all rely on the power of headlines to draw in readers. Next time you find yourself engrossed in an article, take a look at the title and consider how it engaged your interest. Next time you dismiss an article as trash do the same and learn how not to make promises that you can’t fulfil.

2)       Know why a headline works (or doesn’t) otherwise you won’t be able to match your headline to your content or your objectives.

3)       No matter what headline template you use (How to; # Lists; Revelations; Gee Whizz, etc.) punt the benefits. Tell readers what they’ll get upfront and they’re more likely to follow through. (*Special tip: Clark says dual benefit headlines work wonders, e.g., How to win friends and influence people. Just make sure that the link between the two is tenable.)

4)       Use keywords because they make sense. Keyword research tells you what people are interested in. It also tells you which niches pique interest so you can target a narrow, but relevant audience.

5)       Ask a question. Your question can either prompt the reader to find out more, or prompt the reader to find out how your opinion differs from hers.

Home-grown wisdom

1)       Don’t try to be cute. If you want people to roll their eyes and pass on by, then by all means abuse puns and force alliteration. If you want them to take you seriously don’t mess them around.

2)       Don’t be obscure. This is closely aligned with: Don’t be too clever. If your headline can’t be easily associated to the content, ditch it.

3)       Just because it’s a headline doesn’t mean you can ignore punctuation – or spelling. This is an actual headline from an actual newspaper: Nicaragua Sets Goal to Wipe Out Literacy. It’s probably not what the writer had in mind.
How about this one: War Dims Hope For Peace. It needs a semi-colon for the real meaning to come through.

4) Don’t waffle. Keep it as short and snappy as possible. If you can’t convey the gist of your article in five to 10 words you should probably rethink your article. (*Special tip: Sean D’Souza recommends the breath test. If you can say your headline out loud in one breath it’s too long. If you are going for a long one then definitely use punctuation to make it manageable.)

5)       Make a bold statement; it grabs attention and invites readers to agree or disagree with you.

If you have other tips for killer headlines please share them with us in the comments.

PS: I wrote my headline last again, can you tell?

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