5 Ways to Hate Headline Writing a Little Less

I meet very few people who actually enjoy writing headlines for their content. A writer shoulders a lot of pressure coming up with that headline — those handful of words that make the first impression and, a lot of times, determine whether a reader will click on your story or pass it over.

It’s like we actually have a fighting chance when it comes to print, right? Readers can see your witty headline, above the story, with a photo. No matter the headline, in context, it all comes together and makes sense and is wonderful.

Then there’s the web — *eye twitch* — a whole other beast.

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Because I hear from so many people how painstaking writing a web headline can be, I thought I’d offer up a few tips that have helped me hate it a little less.

1. Try a number headline

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What’s that? It will make you feel artificial and click-bait-y? That doesn’t have to be the case. Write your headline and your story with integrity and blow the socks off people. Number headlines have been proven to work, so just give it a try.

Ninety-eight percent of the time it will only makes sense to use the number headline if you decide ahead of time that you’ll be creating a list as your content or including a list within your content.

Numbers indicate that things are going to be spelled out, that reading this story isn’t going to be An Event. I’m going to click on your headline and find what you’ve promised me — however many tips or tricks or steps or what-have-you’s — and I’m not going to have to dig around to for them.

Something to note: Always put the number at the beginning of your headline.

2. Make it about the reader

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 4.03.28 PMNothing says “We wrote this with the reader in mind” like a headline that addresses the audience. Have you ever tried throwing in a personal pronoun like “you?” There’s a reason why newscasters tell you about the weather with the tagline “and what it means for your weekend.” When people start talking about you, you listen!

Headlines that address “how your child behaves” or “why we can’t get enough of Jon Hamm” (PREACH) speak to readers and spell out what the content means to them.

3. Imagine how your story looks as a tweet

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When you strip your content down to just the headline — no photos, no deckhead, no story — will the headline still make sense? Imagine it in someone’s Twitter feed or on the OU.edu homepage in the headlines rail. Will people know what you’re talking about?

Try writing a super witty headline for the web and your content risks the chance of being lost online with no way for your audience to find it. If you don’t include your keywords, if it isn’t SEO friendly and to the point, you have failed. The struggle is real, folks.

What it really comes down to is marrying that creativity with SEO, so you can please both Google and your human audience, for the perfect one-two punch. But! The good news is, it can be done. Look at Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Scott Forstall, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Apple” or NPR’s “Songs for Stuffing: A Thanksgiving Mix.”

 4. Stuck? Try focusing on the first three and last three words

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I think a Bufferapp.com writer once summed up headline writing by saying, “Start strong, end with flourish.” He was referring to this three-words rule. Did you know readers tend to absorb the first three words and the last three words of a headline? If you’re stumped with a headline, it wouldn’t hurt to put some thought into the first three words and take it from there.

Something to keep in mind: For OU headlines we shoot for 50 characters so that the headline fits on the OU.edu homepage. Others online might advise you to shoot for 55 to avoid betting cut off in a Google search. Also good advice.

5. Try one these 10 words 

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Whenever I’m feeling particularly uninspired I think back to this post I read from Matt Thompson, who’s worked for NPR and the Knight Foundation and written for Poynter, which is where I found this tip. He said when he’s stuck on a headline, he refers back to these words: top, why, how, will, new, secret, future, your, best, worst.

Best, worst, new and top pair well with number headlines, while why and how prep the reader for an explanation. Will sets you up for action (“15 Sooner Hacks That Will Change Your Life“). Secret and future tap into universal desires about things we want to know. And your? Well, you know that one.

— Morgan

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