I Suck at Writing Headlines

There. It’s out. Fifteen-plus years as a magazine editor and freelance writer, and I still feel like I can’t write a good headline to save my life. (I also like to toss a cliché into my lead every so often — call me a rebel.)

Take a look at some of the headlines our host, Rebecca Laffar-Smith, comes up with. She’s an SEO genius, but her titles would rock any print publication off bookstore shelves, too.

I know what to do. But inspiration rarely strikes when I need it. I can, however, tell you how not to write a good headline, especially for the Web.

How NOT to write a good headline

  • Get punny. Puns are just bad SEO, plain and simple – unless you can make a pun in such a way that you’re actually using one of your keywords and telling readers what your article is about. If you’re changing one of the key terms – forget it. Go for the straightforward over the obscure.
  • Use “is” as your verb. Ugh. I can’t think of anything duller. You want a title that will excite people, make them want to read what you have to say. Speaking of verbs, it’s an old writing convention that headlines must have a verb. When you get to my last tip, you’ll see why.
  • Admittedly, “suck” may not be the best verb for a headline (I don’t want to know what people who find this article were really searching for.) But at least there’s some action involved. (I’m just digging myself deeper, aren’t I?)
  • Don’t offer any benefit to the reader. A benefit, even a tongue-in-cheek benefit like “How NOT to write a good headline” will help readers. People are smart enough to know they can look at the opposite of these tips and follow the advice to write a good title. When you write a benefit-oriented headline, you’ll naturally include a verb.

Here are some examples of benefits, with the verbs highlighted:

Lose weight

Get rich

Hook readers

Live longer

A few bonus words about benefits

Unless you’re writing a news story, your headline should offer a benefit. What is a benefit? A benefit is what your reader will get from reading your article. Some examples of benefit-oriented headlines include:

What will the reader get out of reading your article? Presumably, the title to this article lets you know that you’ll discover how to write a good headline. One would hope I won’t just rant for 400-sum-odd words about how I suck at writing headlines, hate writing them, wish someone would offer me three easy tips to write better titles. But I’m taking a chance here – a leap of faith that you’ll get my sense of humor. And that the title itself is shocking and out of place enough that you’ll read what I have to say.

A better title might be the example I used above: Write Benefit-Oriented Headlines to Hook Your Readers. Even better would be…

I Suck at Writing Headlines… But You Don’t Have To.

If you’ve reached this point, I guess my title worked. Thank you for your time.

P.S. If you’d like, post some of your favorite titles below, or maybe some that need a little work. We can brainstorm and help each other.

4 thoughts on “I Suck at Writing Headlines

  1. Great Tip, Rebecca!

    Whenever I write a headline I think of the journalists pyramid. That first line needs to hook but also be informative. It has to be detailed enough to know what the breaking news is and allow them to decide if they want to know more. Headlines in newspapers and magazines are usually a great example of this writing style.

    I’ve found having a good headline is vital when it comes to catching attention in social media especially. If even my dearest friend posts a link without a good description of where that link will take me I wont click on it. If you give your readers a great title to begin with they’ll have something to share that will pull readers.
    .-= Rebecca Laffar-Smith shares: New Beginnings And WRA’s Theme Tweaks =-.

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