If you hire me to help plan and launch your blog, you’re going to spend some portion of the first three months learning how to write for one. And among the first lessons you’ll learn is how to write a great headline. I’ve spent years understanding what makes for a great headline and likewise, spend a fair amount of the first quarter of your blogging campaign showing you how to do it as well. Writing a great headline or title for a blog post is a craft; make no mistakes.
But as is often the case with tutelage, learners soak up the concepts, while the practical knowledge alludes them. Ultimately, my customers submit posts for review that scarcely contain any of the headline writing considerations we spent months discussing. So as an increasing portion of my vocation involves pouring over headlines in steady need of TLC, it dawned on me, like it must’ve the Once-ler, that perhaps headline writers become through trial, rather through class. It was on the heals of this realization that I thought that maybe I should be discussing the practical means by which I arrive at the headlines I use.
And so it comes to this: as someone who reads proposed blog content for my clients all the time, I thought it might be fun and informational to share my own headline vetting progression. What follows are the five steps I use to show, not merely teach, my clients how to write a provocative and alluring headline. Ok, so let’s get underway.
1: Write down the blog topic idea
Cell phone calls cannot be traced quickly. As a matter of fact, it can take up to 1.5 hours for authorities to zero in on a cell phone’s whereabouts. This post will reveal how much time is lost when dialing 911 from a mobile phone in the event the caller becomes incapable of reporting his whereabouts to emergency medical personnel.
2: Propose a headline for the post
The proposed headline for this post is, “911: Every Second Counts.” (feel free to add your own Ed Wood-esq, three-chord pipe organ progression any ole time.)
3: Ask questions of your headline
What’s the post about?
There are a couple of problems with the proposed headline. First off, it’s vague. What will I learn from the article? More importantly, how will I be better for having read it? The latter question speaks to the time constraints people place on their browsing habits and subsequently, the time they will allow you to appeal to them. You get little more than six seconds to entice me to the point of engagement. If you haven’t persuaded me within that timeframe, I will move on. This disappointing reality leads me to my next point: the headline suggested above doesn’t make any assertions.
What’s the post prove?
What are you claiming in your title? This one doesn’t make any claims and again, making an announcement will attract your audience far sooner than will an unnecessarily mysterious headline. If you’re writing a Dean Koontz novel, I’ll let this pass I suppose. But you’re not writing a Dean Koontz novel, now are you? No. You’re telling people why they should do a thing a certain way and you’re supporting your declaration with data that can save lives – possibly the reader’s. And so you need to forgo the vague and spooky rhetoric and make your point explicitly and quickly and in this case, free of any airs.
4: Propose an alternative headline
A better headline might be, “Why Dialing 911 from Cell Phones Contribute to Deaths”
5: Ask the new headline questions (again)
Using the word “why” states what will be learn from reading the post by making a pronouncement – a claim insomuch as, “this is what happens when…” Additionally, it immediately announces its intentions and explicitly addresses what will be proven in the post. I will prove that using a cell phone to tell a 911 operator you’re having a stroke could contribute to your death. Stroke victims cannot speak in many cases due to the onset of aphasia, a paralyzing language disorder most stroke sufferers encounter in the moments following a stroke.
Secondly, the phrase, “contribute to deaths” suggests urgency to readers. This language will appeal specifically to anyone who…
- (a) ever has cause to dial 911
- (b) ever has cause to dial 911 from a mobile phone and
- (c) ever has cause to be concerned about losing their ability to speak while dialing 911 from a mobile phone
This alternate headline both makes a solid and provocative claim and proves its point before the reader even begins reading the body copy.
Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” You see, you can be taught how to write a great headline. But, don’t be confused: it’s the concept that you’re being taught, not the ability. My clients and I polish this ability through executing a process like the one I’ve discussed here.
Only when I began to explain my own headline writing process, using these practical steps, did my customers begin to get it. The balance of the learning is had by repeating the exercise. I have taught it and I have pointed clients at great sites like Copyblogger that discuss it. But most of my blogging clients got it only after pledging time in the trenches to this process or one similar to it of their own creation. Consider it a kind of conditioning.
How do you write your headlines? What is your process? Do you use a system of paces you put your content through?