Woo Them with Words: Hunting for the Hit Headline

From copywriters, to marketers, to journalists and bloggers, there are many web workers who can benefit from learning how to write headlines that attract readers. Sometimes, the web seems like a sea of headlines, all competing for which one people will actually click on. Also, it’s widely known in the world of journalism that good headlines are a huge part of what makes people want to read a particular story.

After a quick scan of some of the sites on the web with advice on headlines, I didn’t see some of my favorite tips, so I’m compiling several of them here:

Jar the Reader. A good rule to follow in writing headlines is to jostle the reader. You don’t have to go the route of the tabloids with “Jen Plots Sinister Revenge Against Angelina,” but a good example of a headline that jostles the reader appeared right here on this blog yesterday: “The Not-to-Do List: Bad Habits to Stop Now.” How can you read that without wondering what the opposite of a to-do list is?

Suggest That You Know a Secret. Sometimes a simple word, such as “secret,” can woo the reader. Who doesn’t want to know a secret? It has also been established in studies of headlines that the word “free” is attractive to readers.

Marry Two Concepts. You can often get a lot more information into headlines by using a simple colon than you otherwise would. “Tyranny at the Top: Executive Greed and the Fall of Enron” frames one plainly stated concept, after the colon, with another miniature headline.

Play with Words. Creative wordplay can often hook readers. You can look to already invented playful words, “high-falutin’” being one of my favorites. Or you can even make up words, as a well-known blogger recently did: “frag-tard.” Songs often include creative wordplay. I liked this headline I saw for a story about VoIP: “Voices Carry.” You probably remember the tune. Alliteration is also good sometimes. That’s what I went with for the headline for this post–hitting for a double.

Ask a Question. Turning a headline into a question is sometimes a good practice. After all, questions call for responses, and a response from the reader is what you’re shooting for in a good headline.

Scan Other Headlines. Just as musicians get good prompts from other musicians during jam sessions, writers can benefit from looking at other writers’ headline constructions. I like to keep a lot of magazines around when I write, for this reason.

If the Topic Sells Itself, Settle for Clarity.
Sometimes when you know you’re writing something that almost anyone would be curious about, the clearest headline is better than anything too creative. “My Meeting with Bigfoot” doesn’t really need to be jazzed up.

Do you have any tips on writing headlines that get attention?