It doesn’t matter how good your article is, without a great headline you are wasting your time because most people won’t read it.
Newspaper journalists have long known this, which is why there is a Walkley Award for “Headline Journalism.” You can get a Walkley Award, journalism’s top honour, for 10 words or less.
With the decline of the newspaper and the rise of news websites, email bulletins and blog posts, the headline is becoming even more important because it is often the only visible part of the story on a webpage.
Some of the effort that writers used to invest in perfecting their first sentence, or “lead”, to draw in readers is now being transferred to the headline. For the average writer that could mean that spending 30-60 minutes on the headline is appropriate.
Despite the importance of the headline there are no scientific rules for getting it right. Below are six simple tips that will stop you getting it too wrong.
Write your headline first.
Many writers treat the headline as an afterthought but that is a big mistake. The headline is a promise which your article delivers on. Writing the headline first is a great way compose your thoughts about what you plan to write. If the headline sounds lame, you probably need rethink your article and make it more interesting.
Readers have limited time so they don’t want to waste time on something that doesn’t pay them back. Make it clear what readers will get in return for their precious time.
State what’s new.
If your article reports on a new development then put it in the headline. People are drawn to read the news. Avoid non-specific headlines, for instance “Company XYZ update” which don’t highlight the actual news.
Journalists have long argued that “active” headlines and leads which include a verb are more compelling. Interestingly, this has recently been supported by research on what tweets get retweeted.
Pose a provocative question.
Asking a question directly engages your reader. However, the question cannot be random or clever. It must relate directly and clearly to the major benefit offered by the article.
Make sure your headline matches your story.
Don’t put a catchy headline on your story which doesn’t match the article. This might generate clicks the first time but it breaches trust with your readers and will suppress your readership in the long term.