Headlines are the most important few words that you write.
They can make or break a post. Yet they tend to be left to the end of the writing process when creativity and clear thinking may be at a low ebb.
So why are headlines so important. Just think about how you scan the content of magazines and newspapers, book titles at the book shop, and online social media streams. There are lots of choices and limited time. So your brain takes as many shortcuts as it can to do a reasonably good job at spotting the most interesting things. It wants to know the subject, whether it’s relevant, and what it will get if it dives in.
Essentially, your headline is how you sell your post.
Those who have studied which kind of headlines work best have found a set of things that busy users need. However, there is a risk of becoming formulaic and you should always leave space for the inspired headline that breaks the rules.
The 5 rules of good headline writing
- Write the headline before you write the piece. If you can’t come up with a good headline, save yourself a lot of time and move on to another idea. If you can come up with a good headline then it will help you to shape the post. (See more on the importance of beginning at the end.)
- Explain what the piece is about. The trick is to make it clear what subject is being addressed. But don’t give away the whole story. In other words, do enough to intrigue the reader.
- Be clear who you are writing for. You are aiming for ‘relatability’. This means framing content so that it appeals to some emotional need in the reader. The brain is thinking, ‘is this for people like me?’
- Make it clear what the reader will get. News websites are very good at providing headlines that are neat summaries of the underlying stories. You don’t need to dig any deeper for most pieces. But if your aim is to get people to click through to the post then you need to create an appetite for more. The online writing expert Nicolas Cole believes this is the most important element of a headline.
- Never over-promise. We’ve all been there – clicked on an intriguing headline and then been disappointed when the content doesn’t deliver on the promise. That’s really poor practice and a good way to get a bad reputation.