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Write Stronger Headlines Now

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

Don't let weak headlines bury valuable editorial content. This month, we round up tips from several magazine writers and editors.

By Meredith L. Dias

Headline writing has taken on new dimensions as digital and mobile publishing have gained momentum. In many cases, editors must write headlines that pop not only on the printed page, but also in search engines and on social media websites.

We live in an age of information overload, so editors of both print and digital content must up the ante with their headlines to attract reader attention.

If you are publishing digitally and/or online, you are fighting against a formidable floodtide of links -- in search engines, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on social bookmarking sites like Digg and Stumbleupon.

Want to lure readers to your content? Be prepared to fight for the spotlight. Your headline must do more than drive traffic to your content; it must compel readers to share the link with their social networks.

Do you think more readers would feel compelled to click "Lindsay Lohan Behind Bars for Shoplifting" or "Young Celebrity Incarcerated"? The former specifies the culprit and her crime; the latter is too ambiguous to inspire much reader curiosity or urgency. Consider "Strong Seismic Waves Ravage Japanese Landscape" and "Devastating 8.9 Earthquake Hits Japan." Which do you think best conveys the message?

Writers and editors must consider several online angles when crafting their headlines. As Leo Babauta writes on FreelanceSwitch.com, headlines must stand out on an RSS feed, grab reader attention when linked on other websites and blogs, and command clicks on crowded social bookmarking sites. How does one accomplish this? Babauta offers up a list of twenty vital components of attention-grabbing titles. Among them: curiosity, controversy, and succinctness.

Brian Clark on Copyblogger.com discusses five areas where magazine headlines fail. Readers tend to skip headlines lacking simplicity and apparent benefit to them. It is important, therefore, to write headlines that tell readers exactly what is in it for them in as few words as possible. The headline must convey an article's essence while creating enough urgency to keep them turning the pages or prompt clickthroughs.

Magazine editor and designer Annie Suh suggests the following exercise to sharpen headline writing skills: Have a colleague cover up all the headlines in a magazine issue, and then compose headlines based on the content and tone. Compare these headlines to the originals. This will help illuminate weaknesses in technique.

You've likely heard tips like these ad nauseam over the years, but they are always worth repeating. Even if your budget is tight and your resources limited, a strong headline can help content go viral. Some of the most popular YouTube videos have been home videos, but their titles continue to draw in viewers by the millions (or, in the rare case of "Charlie bit my finger - again!", hundreds of millions).

In other words, you don't need a huge budget or fancy content management systems to make waves with your articles. Sometimes, all that stands between you and an influx of new readers/subscribers is the right headline.

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and STRAT.

Add your comment.


"While this article focused on writing headlines for magazines, I noticed that the examples seemed to focus more fast-breaking news stories (e.g., 'Lindsay Lohan Jailed'), which unfortunately, are more the domain of newspapers and blogs -- and not that useful as examples for magazine headline writing (at least not for the type of magazine that I tend to read).

"For example, the magazine I work on is a monthly, and with copy written at least 3 weeks ahead of the publication date, so that most of our stories offer either a 'second-day angle,' or else are written with an attempt to shed light on where the story might be going six months out. In other words, it's not likely that soneone's finger is getting bitten off.

"Of course, that doesn't mean that headline writing is any less important, but it does put a different spin on things. To bring that closer to home, my magazine covers electric utilities and national energy policy, exploring long-term issues dealing with wholesale power markets, power plant heat rates, financial transmission rights, hedging contracts, congestion load pockets, and whether wind-generated power is bac for grid reliability by by causing frequency deviations. The typical article is 3,000 to 4,000 words, so it's not likely that a reader will pass the link along on an I-Phone, no matter how engaging the headline.

"However, I can say that I was very impressed with the headline -- 'Green Giant' -- that was selected for a recent New Yorker article about development of renewable energy in China. It said everything it needed to say." --Bruce Radford, Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine.

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