Writing Headlines for Fun and Profit

This is part of a series on how to Be a Better Journo. It’s intended to shame my colleagues in the blogosphere, solicit ideas from my peers on how we can all improve, and help guide noobs and youngsters into creating better digital journalism. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

Back in J-school, we were taught a number of things about headlines, things that the average digital journalist would assume were largely obsolete because of modern metrics involving clickthrough rates.

You see, back in the days of print journalism, we couldn’t measure readers’ interest in a story with any kind of accuracy. We assumed based on studies that around 25% of readers would make it through the first bit of your story if the headline was interesting to them. We also assumed, based on the fundamentals of good writing techniques, that active verbs made for better headlines than clichéd verbs or a string of nouns and adjectives.

Most of all, because of the inverted pyramid model of newswriting, we tried to put the absolutely most important information into the headline — the few words that would convey the main point of the story enough that, if a reader skimmed the publication’s headlines only, he would have a good idea of the day’s news.

At the end of the day, the headline was largely based on the editor’s judgement of what would make the best, most arresting string of words that accurately summed up the story.

These days, however, with the advent of digital metrics, headlines are becoming a much more scientific pursuit. One must consider search engine optimization, social sharing optimization, and overall performance in addition to older established practices such as, you know, good newswriting.

FOR THE SEASONED TRADITIONAL JOURNALIST

If the Internet is the newer part of your domain, this new world of metrics can be head-spinningly complex. Internet professionals will tell you how to tweak your headlines based on Google Trends, popular keywords for Digg or Twitter, SEO principles, and more.

Basically, when you evaluate your headlines now, you should be looking for two elements: Machine-readability and instant human comprehension.

Machines, a.k.a. search engines, won’t understand the meaning of your story, but they do understand and operate on the inverted pyramid, which is still and will always be your friend. The higher up in your story you can place its most important words, the better.

For example, here’s a recent Wall Street Journal headline which, while decent for print, bombs on the web:
Paul Allen Launches Patent War

Let’s go back to the inverted pyramid and the tenets of what makes a fact newsworthy. Who the hell is Paul Allen? For 95% of readers, the name isn’t recognizable. And if it’s not recognizable to users, they’re not going to be searching for it on Google or Bing. No sense in optimizing a headline for a term like that. Next word: “Launches” — what a hideously boring verb. Someone launches something every day. Companies launch products, web apps launch features, brands launch marketing campaigns. “Launch” is one of the laziest, most overused verbs in headline writing. It sucks here. “Patent War” is much better, good and combative; plus, it gets to the meat of the story: the patents.

How do we fix this headline? Well, the story is about a Microsoft co-founder suing Google and Facebook, plus a few other companies, over alleged patent violations. Those three companies are by far the most newsworthy proper nouns in the story. So why not write something like,
Microsoft Co-Founder Sues Google, Facebook Over Patents

Zing! It’s much stronger, because more users will click through for big-name tech company news. They’re also more likely to be searching for terms such as “google patent lawsuit” or “microsoft cofounder patent” than “paul allen” if they’ve heard about the news elsewhere and are using the web for further research. Because it follows the inverted pyramid and acknowledges the most newsworthy components of the story first, it’s more human-friendly and machine-friendly at the same time.

Let’s do another, this one from the New York Times:
Neighborly Borrowing, Over the Online Fence

Weeping Jesus on the cross — what the hell is that headline supposed to mean? Fences? Neighbors? Freaking Robert Frost? Users aren’t going to be searching for any of those terms if they’re looking for this story, which is about peer-to-peer lending websites. If you have a captive audience reading a magazine on an airplane, for example, they might dig the 4 or 5 paragraphs deep into this story to find out what you’re bleeding talking about, but on the Internet, I can guarantee you this post is underperforming.

Let’s clean up this hot mess, starting with the key terms: Microfinance. Lending/borrowing. P2P (maybe). Rentals. E-Commerce. How about:
The New E-Commerce: Peer-to-Peer Borrowing, Lending, and Rentals
User-to-User Borrowing Websites Are Reviving E-Commerce

We’ve all been guilty of writing overly literary headlines that stray from factual and lean toward florid. On the Internet, this can be a fatal mistake. Machines hate it as much as users do.

FOR THE BLOGGER

While most bloggers have a decent idea about clickthroughs and SEO, we sometimes fudge the details a bit in our quest for bigger numbers.

Cryptic headlines that are “cute” and overly precious are a waste of space (lookin’ at you, MG). Long-winded and grandiose ones are just as bad (and now lookin’ at you, Marshall Kirkpatrick). Worse still is the headline making a promise that remains unfulfilled by the body of the article (looking at all bloggers everywhere.) And finally, there’s the unforgivable sin: Boring headlines, shoddily slapped together as an afterthought, that run long and do not inform.

Bloggers, if you haven’t studied the inverted pyramid before, please take some time and do so now. The idea in newswriting is that you lose your readers’ attention very quickly as your story progresses, so you need to make each post fact-dense and top-heavy. Pack the most vital of the who-what-when-where-why into the headline, the lede, and the nut ‘graf. This type of writing is one of the tell-tale trademarks of a professional and well-trained journalist; if you aspire to be more than “just” a blogger, you need to learn and employ this stylistic convention.

So, if you’re using the inverted pyramid, and you know that your readers don’t spend endless hours gazing lovingly at every delicately crafted word you spout from your spindly little fingers, you should be giving them punchy, concise, fact-filled headlines.

Since I’ve already called out two of my friends and peers for their occasionally less-than-Pulitzer-material headline writing, I’ll use recent posts from them as examples. And guys, if you take offense, I’ll buy you a beer next time I see you. Or I’ll write your next five headlines for you, no charge.😉

Here’s one from MG Siegler, one of the brighter stars of TechCrunch:
Bit.ly Clickabit, Now. Bit.ly Now, Later?

All I get from this is that it’s about Bit.ly.The rest of this is indecipherable and tells me nothing about what I might be getting into if I read the rest of MG’s post. The average, non-tech-obsessed reader, would give this headline a pass. Not as in “a hall pass,” but rather as in “I’ll pass.”

The story is actually about how Bit.ly is curating the weirdest (and perhaps soon, the best) links shared online. I know it’s not as clever or cute, but perhaps this type of hed would work better in terms of conveying the news at hand:
Bit.ly Curating the Web’s Weirdest Links on Clickabit

Moving on to Marshall Kirkpatrick, my erstwhile mentor at ReadWriteWeb and a hell of a good guy and great blogger. Here’s one he wrote recently:
Only Burning Man Stands Between Diaspora, the Open Source Facebook, and Its Public Launch

The real story here is that the hotly anticipated Diaspora is launching in September. “Burning Man,” the first keyword in the headline, is in no way part of the story. There are a few inverted-pyramid ways to reword and reorder this headline, and any of them would fix its main problem: At 14 words and 90 characters, it’s closer to the idea length of a lede than a headline. The story would retain keywords and users’ interest if it read something like:
“Open Source Facebook” Diaspora Goes Live in September

Finally, in the absence of a tiered system of fact-checkers, proofreaders, and copyeditors, bloggers need to ethically steer clear of sensationalism in headlines — something of which every numbers-chasing noob is guilty, myself included.

If you’re writing about a study that suggests some wild hypothesis, make sure your headline doesn’t assert that hypothesis as fact. If your story only tangentially involves a major company, don’t name the company in the headline.

This type of headline is a tried-and-true method of getting readers to click through, but overuse breeds mistrust, and even occasional use will get you called out immediately by some of your more intense readers. Also, bait-and-switch headlines will be noticed as such by your colleagues, who will be the ones who hire, fire, promote, and commend or discredit you over the course of your presumably long career.

If you want to be a better journo (or blogger), write headlines that are brief, informative, accurate, interesting, and machine-readable.

All the rest is linkbait and nonsense.

3 thoughts on “Writing Headlines for Fun and Profit

  1. Excellent post. This can be one of the stickiest points for journalists making the transition from print to online, especially at weekly or monthly publications, where editors tend to craft more clever, less descriptive headlines, or even just write straight-up puns.

    I head up the digital effort for a small weekly newspaper company, and always advise editors to A) scrap their print headlines and B) rewrite them in such a fashion that they make sense standing alone, far away from any subheads, body copy, photos or captions (as they often do in contexts like RSS readers, aggregators and mobile sites).

    Lately, I’ve found myself referring folks to the new Yahoo! Style Guide (which is worth buying a print copy of), as it covers headlines pretty well: http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/construct-clear-compelling-copy/headings

    Great examples in this post, too. I’ll be sure to include this link in my round-up of online headline writing advice.

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