5 tips for writing truly great headlines

Headline writing has changed a lot since I started writing for newspapers 20 years ago. The internet came along and changed everything. A concise, clever headline still works, but thanks to the influence of Twitter and Facebook a headline now can be a full sentence, too. And don’t forget the listicle, which is still highly effective when used judiciously (ahem).

The proliferation of screens has shortened our already meager attention spans; research has shown that we now lose concentration after a measly eight seconds, or faster than a goldfish. So without further ado (are you still with me?) here are five tips for writing headlines that will attract readers and make them click.

Keep it simple. A good headline conveys a single idea clearly. It doesn’t have to be short, but if the reader doesn’t immediately understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll move on.

 

writing headlines

 

Use strong verbs. Verbs show us that something is happening and keep us engaged; they’re dynamic and bring a headline to life. The best verbs are active ones (think “Man Bites Dog” rather than “Dog Bitten By Man”), but try to avoid clichés like “launched” and “announced.”

 

writing headlines

 

Be provocative. Particularly in content marketing, you need to stand out from the noise to get noticed. That doesn’t mean being sensationalist — which often means exaggeration and inaccuracy. Challenge people to think, and maybe outrage them a little.

 

writing headlines

 

Avoid jargon. Test your headline on a colleague; if it contains a term they’ve never heard of, take it out. Every word in a headline should be doing useful work; unfamiliar ones rarely draw us in.

 

writing headlines

 

Respect the listicle. Readers of The New York Times have called list articles “unworthy” of that publication, but they’ve actually been around longer than the Times itself. There’s nothing wrong with a good list if it delivers on its promise; people like to know what they’re getting into. Just don’t follow it with, “You won’t believe number 7!” It’s cheap and no one falls for it anyway.

 

writing headlines