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The Sexy Art of Writing Headlines that Kill

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If you've written for a print publication, you've had the bittersweet experience of submitting a story and having your headline written for you. It's great, because another human being has to go through the agonizing experience of writing the perfect headline for your story. It's also horrible, because this little baby that you've nursed and cradled and nurtured to perfection is now turned over to a perfect stranger, who for all you know will mangle it with a clunky humdrummer.

But as a blog writer, you no longer have the luxury of writing brilliant, untouchable prose and letting someone else do the hard work of writing the headline. And as a blog writer, the half a dozen or so words of the headline just happen to be the most important half a dozen words you will write.

They should be the half dozen words you spend the most time on. You can crank out the prose, but you should carefully craft that headline. As a former newspaper editor, I've had some experience writing headlines -- and doing it for a print publication isn't so different from doing it for a blog. But as the owner of a blog, I've been doing a lot of experimenting on what works and what doesn't with headlines -- and sometimes I've gotten it right, and sometimes I've been horribly wrong. I'll share what I've learned below.

First, let's take a look at why a blog writer should care about the headline, immensely:

  • Subscribers. Many people will see your headline in a list of headlines in their feed reader. They will not read every post in their feed reader. They will read a dozen or so at most, and they will read the ones that have headlines that catch their attention and draw their curiosity to read more.
  • Other blogs. Other people will find out about your post through other blogs, and most often the link they will see from that blog will be your headline. If the headline is good, they will click on the link. If it isn't, they'll move on to the next one.
  • Digg and Delicious. The social media are huge, and like them or not, they can drive a lot of traffic to your site. If the headline attracts their attention. On sites like these, there are thousands of stories. Only the stories with catchy headlines will win. In fact, headlines are 98 percent of the reason a story becomes popular. The other 2 percent is luck. Notice that the content of your story is only like 5 percent. (I'm a writer, not a math geek.)

Let's assume that you will admit that writing a headline is important. Now you're expecting me to give you 10 rules that will give you the perfect headline, every single time. No such luck. Headline writing is an art, not a science, and the best I can give you are some general guidelines. Here are 20 guidelines to help you write great headlines:

  • Catchy. The first job of a headline is to grab the reader's attention. It should do so appropriately and honestly, of course, but the headline is the way that you draw a reader into a story. If it doesn't grab attention, it doesn't matter what else the headline does. However, do not overdo it -- if your reader is drawn to the story, and the headline oversold it, the reader will feel cheated and swindled. That's not exactly the emotion you want to incite in your readers, I would guess.
  • Be useful. The best headline will tell the reader what he will get out of reading this story. Will it teach you something you've always wanted to learn? Will it help you become smarter, stronger, better looking, better in bed? Will it help you become more informed? Will it give you the juicy gossip you've been craving? Whatever the story will do, it should have some use to the reader. The more useful, the better.
  • The main point. The headline should summarize the main point of an article. This is another of the headline's biggest jobs (some would argue the biggest job). So to write the headline, you need to read over the article (or re-read it, if you wrote it) and figure out what the main point of the article is -- and if it's well written, that shouldn't be too hard. If you don't get the main point, or think that there's 3 or 4 main points, the article hasn't done its job. It should be rewritten. But at any rate, find that main point and summarize it in the headline.
  • Curiosity. The best headlines will summarize a story, but leave you curious to find out more. "Why You Should Care About Technorati" or "The Secret to Making the Perfect Snowball" will leave some readers wanting more (maybe not all of you).
  • Succinct. Wordy headlines will lose a lot of readers. Sure, people should be able to read 15 little words, but they expect to get their info quickly. Don't ask me why. Shorten a headline down to 5-10 words, eliminating all that's unnecessary.
  • Controversy. There's no better guarantee of catching a reader's attention than to stir up a little controversy. Be bold, dare to incite a little indignation, or get the pulse racing just a bit. Don't be moronic about it though. You don't need to incite a riot.
  • Specifics. Specific headlines are better than vague ones. Throw in a detail or two that will catch a reader's interest -- but don't throw in the kitchen sink. This is why numbers in headlines work, no matter how many people hate them. You're not going to give me "A bunch of tips" but instead "10 tips".
  • Magazines. If you want to get inspiration, look at the cover of magazines. Half the time they get them wrong, but sometimes you'll find a great headline. I hate it when they oversell a story, but those magazine editors sure know how to write sexy headlines. Skip the Enquirer -- they oversell. But magazines know the secret of headlines: it's the headlines (and the sexy model) that sell the magazine. Same thing with your blog headlines.
  • Blogs. This should go without saying, but I'll say it nonetheless -- read good blogs. The successful blogs got where they are because they provide awesome content with headlines to match. And blogs that have been successful for some time have usually perfected the craft. Use them for inspiration.
  • The How To. There is probably no type of headline more likely to do well than the How To headline. Start a headline with those two words, and follow them with a skill that many people would like to learn, and you've got a winner. Well, most of the time. Don't overdo it.
  • Lists, with numbers. Yes, they're overdone, but that's because they work. Look at a list of the most popular articles on delicious or Digg, and you'll find list headlines -- at least a few. I overdo them, actually, because just about every post I write has a list. It's just the way I think. And if my post has a list, my headline will likely have a list as well. I had to resist suggesting a list headline for this post. "20 Tips for Writing Great Headlines"
  • Write several versions. Challenge yourself to write the best headline possible. Don't just go with your first attempt. Write that down, then do 3 or 4 more tries. Test each headline by saying it out loud. Look over these guidelines and see if any of them will help the headline. Say it out loud to your spouse or best friend or your mom. Which one catches their attention? Sometimes a clever headline will sound confusing to others.
  • Question headline? Sometimes the best headline poses a question. It makes the reader want to find the answer. Or it alerts the reader to an interesting debate. Give the question headline a try -- it might work for your article.
  • Write a command headline. Tell the reader what to do. Sometimes a command headline can be too bossy -- but other times, it's just the advice the reader was looking for.
  • Be detached. In print journalism, a detached editor writes the headline. The writer is too close to the story, and is biased. She thinks every word is important, every point is the main point. And no headline is good enough. If you're writing your own blog headlines, you should become detached. Write a headline, leave it for awhile, come back to it. Try to see it as an outsider would see it -- someone who hasn't read your article yet.
  • Find balance. You need to find the middle line between being boring and being crazy. It's not always easy. "20 Ways to Write a Great Headline" is better than "Headline Writing" but not as strong as "Write a Perfect Headline or Your Blog Will Fail and So Will You".
  • Key verb. Try this exercise: find a strong verb that best fits the story. Then find other words in the story to go around the verb to form a sentence that summarizes the story. Then shorten that sentence to make a great headline.
  • Short, active words. Prefer short words to long ones, and active words to passive ones. Avoid jargon and acronyms. And feel free to be creative and break any of these rules if it works.
  • Double check. Before you go to print with your article (or press "Publish"), check over your headline again. Read it for spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, punctuation mistakes, factual mistakes (the headline is the worst place to make these mistakes). Make sure it makes sense, and that it does its job.
  • Write it first. Don't save the headline for last. It's too important, and when you're done with a post you just want to write the darn headline and be done with it. Write the headline first -- this allows you to know your main point before you even start writing. Then rewrite the headline later, and give it some time to get right.
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