Headlines hold an interesting space in today’s publishing industry. Unlike writing headlines for the internet, you have the luxury of not having to game SEO or beat any algorithms. No need to make outrageous claims and resort to clickbait. But, in the age of story sharing, your headline is more important than ever. When a story is what can hook readers into your publication, you want to make sure it’s irresistible, eye-catching, and intriguing. What type of headline you use depends ultimately on your publication, its voice, your voice, and what you want to achieve. Nonetheless, here are some of our favorite tips to help you write better headlines.
The easiest way to set yourself apart from other articles is through your word choice. To begin, make sure you do away with words that are so vague they mean nothing. I’m talking about words like “nice,” “interesting,” “fun,” and so on. If you have one of these words (or a similar word) in your headline, it’s likely you could be using a more specific word.
Use getting more specific as an opportunity to convey interesting details about your piece. For example, instead of saying “angry”, give more detail! What kind of angry was it? Was it sulky? Choleric? Hotheaded? It’s easier to pique readers if you give them more of an idea of what to expect in your piece. The best-written headlines will give enough detail to be absolutely clear, while still leaving room for intrigue.
On the other hand, however, it’s important not to stay accessible. Sclerotic, platitudinous, and meretricious are all fine words, and if they fit, use them in your piece. But maybe hold back from including them in your headlines, for fear of alienating readers. Modern copy is all about being relatable, and when was the last time you heard someone say sclerotic?
One of the most effective design principles, that contrast is appealing, translates well to the editorial sphere. So to write better headlines, make sure you hook the audience with a contrast. It’s true that people are drawn to things you wouldn’t normally associate together, because then we get to see just how it’s done. It’s a puzzle that we get to see being solved. So in your headlines, the most effective way to do this is to extrapolate the contrast within your piece, and put that in your headline. Think of it as presenting your readers with the pieces of a puzzle. The less they seem like the fit together, the more interested your readers will be to see just how you do it. Our favorites:
Over are the days of bemoaning the dad-joke. The amount of traction that a bit of wordplay can help bring you is actually quite surprising. Puns have the advantage of automatically intriguing your readers, while being charming enough to not merit an eye-roll. They can show off your cleverness as a writer, and encourage sharing—it’s easier to share something with someone if you know they’ll chuckle.
How do we go about writing a better, more clever headline? Only you can know what combination of words is both clever and reflective of your piece, but if you’re feeling stuck, common expressions and sayings are good places to start. If you still can’t think of anything, try thinking of famous phrases everyone knows. These can be famous quotes, or titles of famous pieces of literature. When you find the perfect pun, you’ll know.
Above all else be sure to keep your headlines simple and accessible. Like we said earlier, you’re not directly competing with Buzzfeed, the New York Times, or Reuters. You’re competing with yourself, trying to see just how far your headlines can take you. And in the end, a headline is only as good as the writing it represents. If you’ve got passion and knowledge behind you, you won’t need any special tips or tricks. But, remember to say what you need to say effectively.