“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” they say.
But unfortunately, we all know that we DO judge books by their cover, literally and figuratively.
And your article’s headline is its “cover.”
If you have a boring cover, it doesn’t matter how scintillating, meaningful, or amazing your content is — few will choose to click on it, and even fewer will actually read it.
In an ideal world, articles would be noticed and read based on their content value, not on their click-bait-y headlines.
But sadly, we do not live in an ideal world.
To give your article a fighting chance, you MUST learn how to write a good headline, using the following tips:
What your headline needs to do
Your headline, obviously, needs to grab attention. There is so much competing stimuli out there, millions of articles published every day, that your article needs a big “look at me!” to attract readers.
But how do you grab readers’ attention?
1. Promise a benefit
People usually don’t read your work because they just want to support you, or admire your amazing way with words.
They read because they want to find out what’s in it for them.
Especially people who read nonfiction articles on sites like Medium.
So tell people what your article offers, right there in the headline.
Does your article teach people how to get rid of foot fungus? Try “3 Fail-Proof Foot Fungus Removal Techniques.”
Or are you trying to help writers who are struggling with writer’s block?
In that case, “5 Ways to Come Up With Ideas When You Have Nothing to Write About” could be the perfect headline for your article.
Don’t try to be mysterious or clever. At least, not at the expense of clearly showing people how your article will help them solve or deal with a real problem in their lives.
I guarantee you that “You Can Control Alcohol Without Willpower or Wretchedness — Here’s How” is going to outperform “Random Inebriated Thoughts on a Rainy Indoor Thursday” any day.
2. Be shareable
The only way to get your article across to a large audience is to 1) post it in a place that gets lots of traffic (ie: Medium is better than your own hosted blog, if you are just starting out), and 2) get people to share it.
The problem is, you can’t really pay people to share your article. (Well, you can try, but it won’t last long, and your bank account will become very, very sad, very, very quickly)
So how do you get people to share your article with their friends?
By crafting a headline that makes them look and/or feel good when they share it.
“How to Crush Regret and Recreate Yourself At Any Age” is more likely to be shared among, say middle aged or older folks because they want to be seen as optimistic, powerful people who still have a lot to offer.
(Especially in a youth-focused society where if you haven’t changed the world by your early twenties, you’re old news).
And it’s also encouraging to send something like this to a friend who has confided in you that he/she might be going through a mid-life crisis.
But no one will want to share an article titled “Warning: You‘re Unknowingly Sabotaging Yourself Because of These 3 Things; Here’s How to STOP” because it makes them either a) feel like a failure, or b) feel like they are telling their friends “you’re a failure.” (Yep, lesson learned!)
Then again, a headline like “3 Classic Novels That Have Changed Civilization” could go both ways. On the one hand, someone who shares this type of article on social media could look well-read and highly educated, which can be a good thing.
On the other hand, certain crowds might look at such a person as a pretentious, stuffy buffoon, which would hurt this article’s chances of going viral.
So figure out who you are writing for, how your ideal reader sees him/herself, and what s/he is most likely to want to share with friends. Then design the perfect headline based on what you’ve discovered.
But now that we’ve discussed WHAT your headline needs to do, let’s talk about HOW it does so:
4 Headline formulas that work
If you’re new to writing headlines, never fear! Here are some formulas that work astoundingly well:
Remember we talked aboout providing a benefit in the headline, earlier?
Well, the how-to is the most ubiquitous headline formula that clearly promises a benefit.
- “How to Plan the Perfect Vacation in Jamaica,”
- “How to Cure Anxiety,” and
- “How to Use the Ridiculously Powerful Magic of Writing To Transform Your Life and Revolutionize the World”
…will appeal to people who want to a) travel to Jamaica, b) be free from anxiety, and c) use writing to transform themselves and their world, respectively.
Each of these headlines clearly promise a straightforward benefit that readers will come away with after reading the article. There’s no confusion, just an irresistible invitation (to the right audience).
2. Numbered lists
Using numbers in your headline promises that your article is skimmable.
And let’s face it, internet readers skim.
When people are surfing the ‘net, the last thing they want to do is get bogged down by a novel-length article, even if it promises to cure the common cold.
Which means that they like numbers because most likely they already know most of whatever you are promising to help them with, whether it’s how to teach your toddler shoe-tying or how to rid your house of fruit flies.
They’re looking not for all of the USUAL problem-solving methods, they want to see if you have an interesting idea that they haven’t thought of before. No one has time to read all 13 of your Ways to Rid Your Closet of That Awful Mothball Scent…they just need one or two ways.
And if you use a number in your headline, you are promising your audience that your article offers succinct, listed methods from which they can easily find and pick their favorites.
3. Negative Words
Loss aversion is real, people!
What is loss aversion? It means that to you and I, the pain of loss is usually worse than the joy of gain.
What does that mean when you are crafting your headline?
It means that a headline such as “12 Heinous Hotel Horror Stories” is more likely to get someone’s attention than “How to Have a Lovely Hotel Experience.”
Because while everyone would love to have a “lovely hotel experience,” (whatever that means), they would love even more to avoid losing sleep over cockroaches, leaky sewer pipes, or opportunistic thieves.
So you might notice that a lot of the best-performing headlines like to use words like “Never,” “Avoid ___,” or “___ Doesn’t Work, Here’s How to Actually ___.”
Readers want to know what they are doing wrong (but again, don’t overdo this), they want to know about hidden traps to evade, and above all, they want to know how to mitigate — or completely avoid — loss.
So use that to your advantage when writing your next headline.
4. Power Words
Power words are words that trigger a strong emotion. Some examples of powerful words include:
- Words that evoke negative emotions: Jealousy, Limiting, Toxic, Lose, Addiction
- Words that can evoke positive emotions: Win, Overcome, Triumph, Unstoppable, Empower
Emotions are critical to decision-making (such as the decision readers make about whether or not to click on your headline), so learning which words evoke “click me!” emotions, and how to use those words is a must for writers.
The above are just some examples to get you started. With practice (through reading and writing many headlines), I am sure you can come up with many, many more examples.
Be an Ethical Writer
Now that you know how to write a good headline, don’t abuse your new powers by enticing people to read cruddy content. In the long run, that kind of strategy is going to end up dumping you on your head in a deserted alley.
Marketing tools are just tools. And just like a hammer can be used to build or destroy, it is up to you whether you use your communication skills to build or destroy.
Some old hands advise newer writers to:
- Start by choosing a headline and then write content to suit the title.
- Spend as much (or more!) time on your headline as (than) you do on your content.
That may work for some, and certainly, you DO need to practice writing headlines to get good at them.
However, I would add a note of caution: in the end, the headline is not the most important part of your article — the content is.
Use proper, helpful formatting and structuring so that you can get your message out to a lot of people, but most importantly:Make sure you have a message WORTH getting out to a lot of people.Click To Tweet
Don’t just write for the sake of getting a lot of eyeballs to view your content.Write so that you can change someone’s life for the better.
That’s the best and really the ONLY true reason to write.
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