10 questions to help you write better headlines

If you need any proof about the power of headlines, consider this: what do you imagine drew the majority of people to this post? Chances are that you and others made the decision to click here after coming across the headline. So I’m not going to dwell on why headlines are important.

Instead, I want to give you a checklist, a quick heuristic diagnostic you can refer to anytime you want to make your headlines sing. Print out the list if you’d like, put it by your desk. But I recommend putting every headline you write through this gamut of questions until they become second nature.

1. Is the headline accurate?

I’m surprised how often I and others trip over this most basic of questions: Does the headline accurately convey the content of the material? The acts of writing a headline and writing a story often happen separately, and it’s easy for factual discrepancies to creep in between those two processes.

One of the reporters I work with is Leslie Berestein-Rojas, who covers immigration-related issues on her site Multi-American. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas revealed in a New York Times Magazine essay that he’s an undocumented immigrant, Berestein-Rojas wrote about it as a high-profile case in an ongoing movement among the undocumented to reveal their immigration status. In her piece, she mentioned another Pulitzer winner, Ruben Vives, whose status as undocumented was revealed earlier this year.

When I suggested the headline “Why Pulitzer winners are coming out as undocumented,” Berestein-Rojas pointed out that Vives had in fact been outed by a colleague at the Los Angeles Times, who had asked Vives for permission before publicizing his status. So a headline implying that Vives had revealed his own status would have been wrong. We went with “Why a Pulitzer winner is coming out as undocumented” instead.

2. Does it work out of context?

On the Web, most people who encounter your headline probably won’t have any context for it. Imagine your headline not as it looks above your article, but as it looks on the home page of an unrelated site, in someone’s Twitter or Facebook streams, in a search result. Would someone unfamiliar with your site get what the story’s about?

Pay special attention to entities and acronyms. If folks don’t know you cover immigration, they may not get that “ICE” refers to “Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

3. How compelling a promise does it make?

Think of your headline as an emissary for your post, written to travel around the Internet, selling the material to potential readers. Imagine those readers asking your headline, “What will this story do for me?”

There’s a genre of headline I like to call “Undergrad Essay.” It usually includes lots of broad conceptual nouns, no verb, and a colon. I cringe whenever I come across the likes of “Friday Night Lights and Sunday morning sermons: Faith, ritual and belonging in Dillon, Texas.” To me, that promises vague reflection and minimal insight. Why not “How Friday Night Lights treats football like church”? That headline is a clear articulation of a specific argument, giving me a good sense of what I’ll get from reading the post.

4. How easy is it to parse?

Consider the cognitive load your headline places on users. The more complex the headline, the more difficult it will be for users to parse, the more likely they are to overlook it. Try to keep your headlines straightforward and unadorned. Use concise and familiar words, if possible.

The multi-part headline laden with $10 words is a killer. Right now, with the debt ceiling talks in the news, I’m seeing a lot of these: “Legislators, loopholes and liabilities: Why debt negotiations have become the Schylla and Charybdis of U.S. politics.” (If you find yourself writing a colon in your headline, look critically at what comes before it. Does that little preamble really make the headline better?) It’s a bit easier for users to swallow something like “Why our politicians can’t reach a deal on the debt.”

5. Could it benefit from a number?

As much as writers chafe against the much-derided “listicle,” the fact remains that we love numbers in headlines. Numbered lists promise not just a lump of information, but a specific series of insights. In some cases, they even connote hierarchy. And hey, it worked on you with this article, didn’t it?

Writing a post as a numbered list can often help make it more compelling when the elements are difficult to cohere in a more straightforward way. Writing an analysis that wraps up the positive and negative portents for the President’s re-election campaign? You could take a cue from Marc Ambinder and write “Obama in 2012: Five advantages (and five disadvantages).”

6. Are all the words necessary?

“Omit needless words,” said Strunk and White. If you apply that guideline to only one aspect of your writing, let that be headlines. In several of its potential destinations — Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — a headline that’s too long will have to be truncated to fit. Plus, shorter headlines are typically easier to parse.

In retrospect, we could easily have condensed the headline by changing from progressive to past tense in Berestein-Rojas’ post about Jose Antonio Vargas, referenced above. “Why a Pulitzer winner came out as undocumented” is just as good, and slightly tighter.

7. Does it obey the Proper Noun Rule?

“Name the known, omit the obscure.” If the subject of your post is well-known to the audience you care about, feel free to include the subject’s name in the headline. But an unfamiliar name might encourage many users to skip over the item.

There’s no use in writing a post about Sarah Palin called “The many travails of an Alaskan ex-governor.” At the same time, unless you write for a trade publication about military infrastructure, it’s probably best to keep the name of that Assistant Deputy Under Secretary in the body of your story.

Pro tip: Sometimes names might be unfamiliar to many users, but still a big draw for a fraction of your audience, and you might be tempted to keep them in the headline for the sake of search engine optimization. If you use a CMS such as WordPress, you might be able to alter the permalink for your post to add the name to it. This will make the name prominent for search engines, but less prominent for users.

8. Would it work better as an explanatory headline?

Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton said it this way: “When remotely possible, turn news into explanation.” If you’ve got a scoop — that, is breaking news of compelling interest — a news headline works well. But in most other scenarios, an explanatory headline might trump a straightforward “here’s what happened” hed. Even when reporting breaking news, if it’s already widely reported, take an explanatory approach in the headline.

As I write, for example, news sites are filled with headlines reporting that Republican and Democratic leaders have offered up dueling deals for handling the nation’s debt. Perusing Google News, the news headlines all run together as some spin on “Boehner, Reid unveil rival debt plans.” At the moment, a headline such as “How Boehner and Reid’s rival debt plans compare” could cut through the clutter.

9. Does it focus on events or implications?

As well as explaining the news, addressing the implications of the news can also help a post stand out in a crowded environment. Try focusing not on what’s happened, but on what it means. If we don’t yet know this, try making the headline interrogative; ask what the implications are. (“Will Congress’ rival debt plans help or hurt chances of a deal?”)

That leads me to a slight side note about interrogative headlines: Do they work? I’ve found they do. As I look at the leading headlines on the Argo Network’s Chartbeat account this very moment, the top item is a question — “For at-risk youth, is learning digital media a luxury?” It’s followed closely by “What killed Google Health? And what does its untimely demise mean?” and “What is the California Dream Act?” So questions certainly aren’t an impediment to a headline catching on. Most of those could also have been written as declaratives: “What killed Google Health, and what its death means”; “What’s in the California Dream Act”; etc. But I don’t have any evidence that the question hurts or helps the post’s appeal.

But remember that bit about your headline making a compelling promise? The implicit consequence is that you have to deliver on your promise. So if you ask a question in the headline, your post should either answer the question or frame and encapsulate it in a compelling way.

10. Could it benefit from one of these 10 words?

When I’m stuck on a headline, I often refer back to this list of words: Top, Why, How, Will, New, Secret, Future, Your, Best, Worst.

Each of them has different merits. Many of them reinforce the advice I offer above. “Why” and “how,” for example, help to frame the headline as explanation (“when” and “what” also work well for this). “Top,” “best” and “worst” are natural partners with a numbered headline. Some of them tap into universal desires: We all want access to “secret” knowledge, and we all want to know the “future.” Words like “your” help me to reframe wonky, technical headlines around what they might mean to the user.

With that, I’m going to go back and retitle this post: “The 10 secrets that will lead to top headline success in your future.” Or not.

For additional resources, check out News University’s SEO and Online Headlines Training package.

Print and clip: Quicklist of 10 questions to ask while writing a headline:

  1. Is the headline accurate?
  2. Does it work out of context?
  3. How compelling a promise does it make?
  4. How easy is it to parse?
  5. Could it benefit from a number?
  6. Are all the words necessary?
  7. Does it obey the Proper Noun Rule?
  8. Would it work better as an explanatory headline?
  9. Does it focus on events or implications?
  10. Could it benefit from one of these 10 words? Top, Why, How, Will, New, Secret, Future, Your, Best, Worst.

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  • http://twitter.com/Veehq Veeh Waithira

    very insightful read…given me ideas…What would make a perfect world?

  • http://twitter.com/Veehq Veeh Waithira

    very insightful read…given me ideas…What would make a perfect world?

  • http://twitter.com/Veehq Veeh Waithira

    very insightful read…given me ideas…What would make a perfect world?

  • http://twitter.com/thewritershelp Jackie Paulson

    Print and clip: Quicklist of 10 questions to ask while writing a headline:Is the headline accurate?
    Does it work out of context?
    How compelling a promise does it make?
    How easy is it to parse?
    Could it benefit from a number?
    Are all the words necessary?
    Does it obey the Proper Noun Rule?
    Would it work better as an explanatory headline?
    Does it focus on events or implications?
    Could it benefit from one of these 10 words? Top, Why, How, Will, New, Secret, Future, Your, Best, WorstI am glad to know the questions to post better headlines.  This can apply to articles or blog posts.  These tips are great to add to my resources list.

  • http://argoproject.org/blog/ Matt Thompson

    For me, it comes back to whether you’re fulfilling the promise of the number, using it to give structure to an otherwise unwieldy (but valuable!) set of insights. It’s difficult to structure a narrative piece about ethnic food delights worth exploring, for example. But numbering can add helpful shape to such a list. Likewise, in the Marc Ambinder example, the piece would have worked less well as a narrative tour of the landscape. The list format helped make it a digestible overview of the challenges and advantages the President brings with him into the 2012 election.

    But I agree with you that it’s easy to overuse. I hate reading lists that feel like SEO spambait, where the author’s throwing in items from Grandma’s attic just to pad the number on top. If you’re going to call my attention with a flashy number in your headline, the post should live up to the gambit.

    As for “secret,” I likewise agree that it’s easy to overuse. (See any exercise magazine’s latest “secret to losing belly fat” cover story.) If it’s a widely-known fact or an unsupported theory, don’t sell it as a secret. But I think it works in contexts like these (taken from The Atlantic, whose headlines I generally like): “R&B’s Best-Kept Songwriting Secret,” “The Secret Lives of Maps,” and “Secret Fears of the Super-Rich.” In each of those instances, the word adds a tinge of mystery that the posts satisfy nicely.

    I’d say similar things for “new,” and all the other words. Stay away from superlatives unless the information merits them (e.g. “The Best (and Worst) Cities for Public Transportation”).

  • http://www.facebook.com/martin.kielty Martin Kielty

    Interestingly, “ways” is a powerful word. Doesn’t seem like it, but it is; so a better headline for this article would be “10 ways to write better headlines”. I’m a big fan of alliteration as well – it “pleases” the brain while it’s parsing information, and a “pleased” brain is more likely to feel like reading your piece. So I’d go for “10 ways to win with headlines”…

  • http://www.facebook.com/martin.kielty Martin Kielty

    I always advise people to steer clear of “new”. If it’s not new it’s not news; if you have to fall back on “new” it’s a red-alert you’re publishing a non story. Try harder. And if you’re truly trying to write headlines which will capture the floating voter as well as the dedicated reader, SEO has to come a distant second to creating a motivating image ina handful of words. Trust your journalism over SEO – slowly but surely talent will beat computer algorithms… and if it doesn’t journalism is dead anyway. Check out how I write headlines at http://www.RockNewsDesk.com – variety, contrast, and above all, a line which will captivate the passing eye as well as the diehard follower. Ch;M.

  • http://twitter.com/j_nb Jessica Binsch

    I’d be interested in what you think about SEO headlines. I feel like I write two separate headlines: One for the story – focused on what people would search for, names, places, often with rather bland verbs – and one for the homepage, which would be more like what you describe (hopefully!). Do we just need to accept the bland SEO headlines or is there a way to marry the two desires of being found and writing an engaging headline? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philip-Claysin/100002732168601 Philip Claysin

    I just paid $22.87 for an iPad 2-64GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from, http://to.ly/aRG4

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philip-Claysin/100002732168601 Philip Claysin

    I just paid $22.87 for an iPad 2-64GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from, http://to.ly/aRG4

  • http://twitter.com/AriellaBrown Ariella Brown

    I get so tired of seeing the word “secrets” in titles, that it turns me off. And I will only use it in a title with great irony because it has lost meaning through overuse. I also get tired of numbers in titles. Usually 10 is a favorite, and when we came into 2011, 11 became the magic number for a while. Numbers do stand out and get our attention — rather like red hair — but when everyone starts dyeing their hair red, the effect is very much diluted.

  • http://hcgactivator.net/ Hcg Activator

    It was in the news that William had caught up with a tramp that had took his picture.http://soundcloud.com/groups/hcg-activator-13

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