When I started writing a monthly newspaper trade column almost 20 years ago, the Internet was relatively new, as was email. There were no blogs, no Facebook, no Instagram, no twitter. Digital cameras were high priced.
I remember teaching headline writing in classes and for the Oklahoma Press Association. At the time, I always said the headline was the most important element on a page, because it accomplished four different chores at once. They grab attention, tell the story, rate the news, and help dress up your pages.
Today, there are still headlines, and all of that is still true.
But while the way we write headlines has changed dramatically with digital type—rather than having to “count” spaces, we just tap a key to reduce or enlarge sizes to fit, they’re more important than ever.
In fact, they accomplish even more. Ever hear of SEO (Search Engine Optimization)? Of course you have.
Tell me, isn’t that what a good headline has always been?
And today, as our attention spans get shorter and shorter thanks to digital media and the explosion of speed delivering news in all media, they’re crucial to attracting impatient, hurried, distracted-by-other-media readers.
I just “read” the New York Times this morning. How? By scanning the headlines on the computer. Check any other news outlet on line. People scan the headlines and expect to come away with a general sense of what has happened. We’ll go back and read the ones we want more information in later. All the Internet search engines spend lots of money trying to come up with catchy headlines to attract you to their pages, and thus boost ad hits.
Nothing new, is it, except the media and the speed?
I’ve found I need to teach my blogging students how to write “headlines” on their blog posts. I took it for granted until I found my blog traffic going up depending on the words in the headlines, and that most of my students had no clue.
All those old headline practices and tips that I’ve taught, or written about in the past have changed with the digital world. To me, there are only two rules in headline writing these days:
Be accurate. Don’t be boring.
They are one important key to attracting readers to your posts.
So, here’s a brief how-to checklist on writing headlines, in any media, especially blogs.
- What’s the key point of the article?
- What will most appeal to your readers?
- Make a list of the strongest, most concrete nouns and verbs
- Have you chosen words that are trending in search engines?
- Use action verbs when possible
- Use short words
- Look for anything unusual
- Is there any play on words you can use to heighten interest?
- Use the shortest words possible
- Use the biggest type you can (for print version)
- Use consistent legible type (no fancy fonts)
- Get to the point early
- More label heads are ok—one or two strong words—with or without a verb (Let a subhead add essential details)
- Edit—ask yourself if you can write it more briefly
Below, comment on one thing you will improve.
(A version of this article will appear in the February, 2014, issue of The Oklahoma Publisher, the statewide newspaper of the Oklahoma Press Assocaition, under "Clark's critique).