Headline writing can be a complicated art to master. It doesn’t help that the rules defining what makes a good headline have evolved over the years.
Before the dawn of the internet, headlines were meant to capture eyes. But when websites came to dominate print, search engines began to demand a new kind of SEO-friendly writing.
Soon, headlines became rich with keywords, numerical lists, and questions that trigger emotional responses in people browsing the internet. In other words, they sought to drive clicks by promising to answer questions people search for.
Even today, the rules continue to change. Fortunately, some things never go out of style. Here are some time-tested rules that will help you write attention-grabbing headlines.
Consider your audience
Writing a headline for an e-newsletter is a lot different crafting headlines for a blog. Google search rankings rewards headlines that tell it like it is using plain, clear language, whereas your EDM readers will likely enjoy something a little more creative, snappy and memorable. Let’s assume we are writing headlines for web articles and blogs, in that case. We’ll come back to EDMs another time!
Summarize your subject
Whether you’re writing a story for a print magazine, newspaper or a blog post, you only have limited space to capture your audience’s attention, so make the most of it! Find the most basic point your article makes and incorporate that into your headline. That will signal to readers what the rest of your story will offer and encourage them to read on for more information.
Be straightforward, specific, and unique
The most powerful headlines get to the point quickly and clearly. Long headlines not only get cut off on Google search results – they also tend to lose readers.
Apart from keeping it simple, you should avoid cliches and be descriptive wherever possible. Avoid words like “better” or “great,” and opt for words that stand out. Instead of “10 ways to write great headlines,” try “10 ways to write unforgettable headlines.”
Avoid passive voice
Remember learning about active and passive voice in your childhood grammar lessons? If not, here’s a refresher. In the active voice, the subject of a sentence performs an action. In the passive voice, the subject experiences the action.
Active: “The cat played with the string.”
Passive: “The string is being played with by the cat.”
Active voice commands the scene and tends to feature verbs other than “to be.” In headlines, active voice also reads much more clearly than the passive. For example:
Active: “Famous author receives Man Booker Award”
Passive: “Famous author is honored with Man Booker Award”
Use numbers, not words
Time and again, headlines with numbers in them outperform those without numbers. It also helps to put those numbers first.
For example, “10 ways to write an unforgettable headline” is likely to generate more clicks than “How to write an unforgettable headline in 10 easy steps.”
If you have doubts, run an A/B test on your headlines and see which format works best for you.
Promise something – and deliver
Most people use the internet to find a solution to a problem or answer a question. Your headlines should cater to them.
You can promise readers convenience using words like “simple” or “easy” in your headline. Or you can promise them something they might now know using words like “secret” or “surprise.”
But it’s essential to remember one thing: whatever you promise, you must deliver on it.
If your story doesn’t fulfill its promise, you’re going to lose your readers’ trust, no matter how memorable your headline may be. That trust can be very difficult to regain, so you should always remember: your headline is very important, but it is still just the first step to creating valuable content.
If you’re looking for help writing better headlines, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d be happy to work with you!