Writing effective headlines, or titles, (I use these terms interchangeably) for your blog posts (and news articles, press releases, magazine features and even social media posts) is essential but not always easy. In fact, writing really good headlines for your posts can be super hard, unless you have some formulas and the best guide ever written, which was not written by me but I will share.
Some students resist using formulas for headlines and titles. They seem to think formulas are an insult to their creative ability. And guess what? Their headlines are not good, because writing really good headlines is more about conveying a benefit to your reader than it is being creative. You really need to learn the style of headline writing. Clever headlines are a waste. They don’t convey concrete information. People like a good tease, but not at the expense of knowing what’s in it for them if they read it.
Guys, trust me. You need formulas. Here are four of my go-tos:
1. List Headline
The list/numbered headline is very popular. When a post and its title are based on a list, it’s called a Listicle. Listicles are a blogger’s best friend. Trust me. You will write listicles.
Nine Reasons to Binge-Watch ‘Game of Thrones’ This Weekend
27 Products That Will Bring a Tear to Any Neat Freak’s Eye
14 Surprising Ways to Make Kale Surprisingly Delicious
5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Own Belly Button
Often (unfairly) associated with clickbait, you see lists a lot and you see them everywhere, from Buzzfeed to the New York Times, though you will see more in the former than the latter, and that’s because lists work to draw readers in. Despite occasional and cranky criticism that blames these list headlines for the dumbing-down of society and a lack of originality, lists are effective because they promise a scannable, defined narrative structure. We know what we’re getting into before we commit, and we busy readers like that very much. Our brains are primed to accept numbers and identifiable chunks of information. We like the knowable. A title is only clickbait if the post/article doesn’t deliver.
Should it be 9 Reasons or Nine Reasons? Go with the numeral in the headline as it’s more quickly recognizable, but both are correct.
2. Conversation/Informal Headline
You’ll notice a lot of websites and blogs are headlining in an informal style now. In stark contrast to the more serious news headlines, these headlines read more like a friend, chatting casually to another friend, which can work well for a blog with a familiar audience. Take, for example:
Raise your Hand if you Hate the New Iphone
Beige Smoothie Trend Is Just … Ew
Here it Is: My Grandmother’s Secret Baked Ziti Recipe
3. Question Headline
Another popular go-to is the question headline:
Are you Missing a Key Nutrient in Your Diet?
Want to Lose Weight Fast Without Feeling Hungry?
It’s easy to see why these seem like a good idea. They set up a need-to-know situation, and then you have to click through for the answer. However, beware the headline that is obviously just not true. For example:
Could This Pill Be the Secret to Lasting Happiness?
Has Amazon Finally Met Its Match?
Is College Debt a Thing of the Past?
(We wish, but no such luck.)
So if you’re going to pose a question in your headline, make sure the reader can’t easily dismiss it with a NO or PROBABLY NOT and move on.
Craft a question that induces a more in-depth answer than yes or no:
Leaders vs. Managers: Which One Are You?
What’s Your Leadership Style? Discover It and Use It
Which Blogging Platform Is Right for You?
Headline writers have figured out that in this age of instant gratification, readers have a hard time resisting a headline that keeps them guessing.
4. Teaser Headline
The tease headline tells you just enough to make you curious, and then forces you to click through to find out what the heck they’re talking about. Dirty trick? Yes. Effective? Of course! Take these, for example:
You’re About to Hate Text Messages as Much as You Hate EMail
The Shocking Statistic about STDs: You Probably Already Have One
Here Are the Fees Your Bank Is Hiding From You
Then there’s the teaser headline that became a cliche – the What’s next
This Stick Of Butter Is Left Out At Room Temperature; You Won’t Believe What Happens Next
What happens next, of course, is your readers move on to another article or another site because they’re over that one. Trends become trends because they work, but readers get wise to them quickly. So, be judicious about following them. It’s only clickbait if you don’t deliver.
Punctuation in Headlines
You’ve already seen the question mark in headlines. Though you don’t need periods in headlines or titles, the fact that a well-place period, emdash (the long one, not the hyphen), colon, or a pair of single quotes, can also make your headline clearer and cleaner and add style and voice.
Punctuation, like the comma below, can even let you say more in a small space. For example:
No, You Shouldn’t Take Your Dog to Restaurants
Under Yankees’ Watchful Eyes, Aaron Judge Tests Wrist in Simulated Game
Scientists Send Rovers to Mars, Jupiter
(No need for an “and” between Mars and Jupiter, because a comma is used.)
You also don’t have to have a period when a comma is used, but note how these periods create emphasis:
No, You Shouldn’t Take Your Dog to Restaurants. Ever.
Trade War Escalates. Stock Markets Shrug. Here’s Why.
You can use an em dash the same way. An em dash is the really long dash that’s used to visually separate a clause from a sentence, like this:
He Wanted his Job Back — But Not this Way
The Five Superfoods You’re not Eating — and Why
The emdash adds a little zip and drama to the line; it forces the reader to slow down and “hear it,” rather than simply seeing it as lifeless words on a page.
The colon also saves you space by letting you cut out a word or two or allows you to simplify and create emphasis around your key idea. For example:
What you Need to Know about Identity Theft Before it Happens to You vs. Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself Before it Happens
Case of Tire Slasher: Deal Is Near
When using quotation marks in a headline, the Associated Press and some other common styles recommend single quotes instead of double.
Why? Newspapers prefer them because it saves space and looks a little neater in the large type sizes in which headlines typically run:
Big Win for Eagles Rookie ‘Big V’
But use full quotation marks when you’re quoting someone directly:
“I’m sorry,” says Anthony Weiner
Or, to set titles apart from regular text, like this:
Brittany Spears to Appear on “Ellen.”
Is Chocolate a Natural ‘Truth Serum?’
Don’t be afraid to experiment with punctuation. Start noticing how headline writers use it.
Here are four versions of one blog post title using my go-to strategies:
- The List: 3 Sure-Fire Ways to Win Free Concert Tickets
- The Informal/Conversation: Yes, I Really Do Win Free Concert Tickets—A Lot
- The Question: Do you Want to Learn How to Win Free Concert Tickets?
- The Tease: I Won Tickets to Four Concerts Last Year—Here’s my Secret
The Best Headline Guide
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