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The 8 Most Greatest Tips to Write Unstoppably Killer Headlines Guide Ever

This guest post is by Eric Cummings and Michael Cummings of On Violence.

Nearly a year and a half into making small strides in one of the smallest niches on the Internet—the MILblog (military blog) community—our traffic started going up. We had one question.

Why?

Our guess is that—in addition to some great guest posts—we started writing better headlines. People want to read articles with great headlines. From the very beginning, we knew we should have been writing good headlines—it was one of the first tips we read. So why did we avoid writing analytics-crushingly good headlines?

Because of the tabloids.

We’ve all been at the check-out counter, looked over and seen the tabloids screaming, “Snooki Sex Tape!” What? Or, “Brad Leaves Angelina!” Double what!? “Obama is an Alien!” Triple what! So you pick up the magazine, and none of that is in there. Snooki just got drunk. Brad is on vacation. Obama is still human. You’re understandably disappointed: you’ve fallen for the tabloids.

I think bloggers do the same thing. In an ever busier, fuller blogosphere, we battle one another with our headlines. We fight each other to write gripping, sticky headlines, clawing over one another with more outlandish declarations of greatness like, “The 10 Tips To Guarantee Blogging Success” or “How to Make A Billion Dollars Blogging, Today!” Bloggers are, in the words of Cmdr. “Stinger” Johnson, writing checks their butts can’t cash.

And the average member of the public is sick of it. Even John Stewart has made fun of it.

If every post you have is turned up all the way, your readers will go deaf. Take “Please RT,” for example. Asking your followers to retweet a post will almost guarantee your tweets get more views. But if you “Please RT” every other tweet, as opposed to just the occasional special tweet, “please RT” loses its meaning. You’ll lose followers, or your tweets will just get ignored.

So when we started blogging, we wanted to avoid misleading headlines, writing only straight-forward, descriptive titles. And it was boring. Post titles like, “War Without Meaning” and “Rainbow” just don’t attract readers. They aren’t creative or fun.

Every headline needs to do two things:

  1. Explain honestly what is in the article.
  2. Make you want to read that article.

There are boring headlines that aren’t honest, boring headlines that are honest, exciting headlines that are dishonest, and exciting headlines that are honest. If you don’t know which is the best, it’s the last one.

So we went from writing “Violence in context” to writing “Haters Want to Hate or: If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan, Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets.” That title is fun, ironic, and snarky; it was also our most popular post ever.

This wouldn’t be ProBlogger if we didn’t offer tips on how to “crush” headlines, and we have ‘em:

  1. Avoid exclamation points, or titles that feel like they need exclamation points. Seriously. Calm down.
  2. Avoid non-ironic hyperbole. It probably means your claiming something you can’t follow up on.
  3. Put accuracy before excitement.  We still don’t turn every headline up to eleven, because some don’t need it. Accept this, and say what your post is about.
  4. Embrace creative limitations. To paraphrase Robert McKee, limitations force writers to be creative, to look for novel solutions. So be honest, don’t overstate or over-claim. Then apply the creativity to get a great title on that post.
  5. Take five minutes on every post and brainstorm a better title.
  6. Don’t use the word “Secret.” Because guess what? There are no secrets to great writing/blogging/making money/losing weight/whatever. It’s the Internet. Someone, somewhere already posted that data. Which means it isn’t a secret. In the words of Darren Rowse, “There is no secret and there’s no one way to do this.”
  7. Read this series on headlines by Copyblogger. It’s really good. “Many people feel that a great headline is bombastic and full of hyperbole, but that’s usually not the case.” Brian Clark writes. “If people don’t believe you can deliver on your promise, they won’t bother reading further, and your over-the-top headline fails.”
  8. Be funny. If you’re funny. Otherwise, avoid it.

What other headline tips can you add to this list?

Eric Cummings and Michael Cummings write for “On Violence,” a blog on military and foreign affairs, art and violence written by two brothers; one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

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Comments

  1. Josh Kroll says:

    I also wondered about headlines because I never bothered reading about how to create one. This was a great place to start. Thanks!

    • Eric C says:

      Also check out the series by Copyblogger.

      I think the reason you don’t see a lot on headlines is that the topic has been covered really well elsewhere.

      Thanks for the nice words.

  2. Great insights, thanks for posting. I’ve been struggling with headlines recently…but I guess it’s all part of the learning process. Thanks!

  3. I have trouble not using exclamation points. Sometimes I just can’t contain my excitement!! OK, I’ll stop. But good post. I definitely get tired of reading the same boring headlines all the time. You can miss out on a lot of great content by skipping over a post with a bland title

  4. That’s an interesting read from a non MMO blog, military niche is not really my interest, although you gave some red-hot tips.

    I think writing irresistible headlines is something we can never learn from books, or seminars, just through daily deep practice, as Robin Sharma would call it.

    • Tom Durkin says:

      Definitely agree, practice makes perfect, but a little experimentation once in a while doens’t go a miss. I have to write headlines almost every day and I’d like to think they are better now than they were a few years, months and even weeks ago.

      Its all one big learning curve

    • Eric C says:

      Thanks for the nice words. I blog, so I read blogs on blogging. Every now and then i have to get some tips out there.

      • Hi Eric, I absolutely love online marketing and the home base business industry, in my quest to excel at what I do and to help others enhance their success I came across a free tool that I use to get the most from my headlines. My website visitors learn about this tool from the business marketing section at my website but I am going to share it here with you. Have a look and see if you like it. Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer http://www.aminstitute.com/headline/index.htm I have greater percentage of opens of my emails too as a result of using this free tool. Enjoy my friend and best of success to you. Bernardus

  5. *raises hand* I would like to read an article on how to make a billion dollars blogging…exclamation points and all. ;)

    But seriously, excellent points in your post. I just have two questions after reading it (okay, 2 relevant questions):

    1. Can you give an example of ironic and non-ironic hyperbole? (to make sure I’m on the same page)
    2. Your “Haters Want to Hate…” headline is really long…possibly beyond the realm of what would show up in search engines in its entirety. Do long titles ever cause any issues for you? (I’ve read – somewhere – that titles should be under X characters to make sure they show up in search engines.)

    • Eric C says:

      1. An ironic headline would be the one we used. Non-ironic would be anything that means what it says. “% emal myths…” from a few says a go is a good example.

      My rule of thumb? If it is over-the-top, make it humorous.

      2. On long headlines, I did think about that, but I liked the headline so much, I used it.

  6. Howie says:

    Eric/Michael,

    I’ve been trying hard to integrate those types of headlines into my articles and blog posts, as of recent. High quality content, unfortunately, just isn’t seen if you don’t give people a compelling reason to look: that’s where the headline comes in. I can see one downside, however, to writing headlines like that: if the content itself under-delivers, on an emotional and a practical actionable level, your audience could leave with a sour (I’m not visiting that site again…) taste in their mouth. Of course, that would have all sorts of negative impact when it comes to solidifying a personal brand online. Once someone decides to never visit again, I’m afraid, their mind is pretty much made up.

    Couple killer headlines with outstanding content and you can knock it out of the park.

    P.s. U.S. Army ’01-Present
    Enlisted/Officer

    Can’t wait to check out your blog…

  7. On reply of your No. 5 # Take five minutes on every post and brainstorm a better title. I would better say: take a whole day to write one article.. One article a day is 365 a year.. A nice blog, don’t you think?!

    • Eric C says:

      Or take longer! We only post three to four times a week on our blog.

      But I wonder how many people–myself included–actually step back from a post during the editing process and work to make the title better?

  8. OK, that was worth it just for the title. I wish the official title here has also said “plus three more” like it did i the email. That was ever besterest!!!

  9. And, wow, I can’t spell either. That was “had” and “in” and “even” — but besterest is the correct spelling.

  10. David says:

    Your #7 says to follow what Brian Clark says.

    That’s interesting because the second of Brian Clark’s “Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work” is “The Secret of [blank],” which goes against your #6.

    So what do you all think? Should we put “secret” in the headline or not?

    • Eric C says:

      I wrote that you should read the series by Brian Clark, not do everything he says. If he had it all figured out, I wouldn’t have written this post.

    • Eric C says:

      And to answer your question, there are no “secrets”. don’t use them.

  11. Great post with a great lesson to take away. I’ve been learning about writing interesting headlines now and before I write any post, sometimes I list a number of headlines that ‘pop’ into my head…around 3-5 and now pick out the best one that draws me into the article, will not over-state the claims and also be a good read for my readers. Thanks for that great articles. Lesson learn’t

    Off topic….Darren wrote about blog group/blog mastermind group sometimes ago useful for generating traffic, collaborating and building ‘helpers’ for your business. I know it’s effective and now I’m have started one. If you’re in the blogging niche, internet income niche, make money online blogger, you can check my link above to learn more about the mastermind group. Maximum members allowed is 49. Thanks for checking it out. You won’t be disappointed. Enjoy your day.

  12. Hey Michael & Eric, thanks for the tips on attention grabbing headlines!!!!!!!!!!!

    I had a look at your blog – it’s a Page Rank of 5, not bad for an Inch Wide Niche!

    Look forward to future ramblings…

    Gerry

  13. Redford says:

    I love number 8 on the tips. But let me add to it. Only use topic specific jokes if you don’t want your article to go beyond the niche. If I make a WOW joke about how grinding isn’t just for questing anymore, I should probably not expect my article to reach anyone other than the MMO crowd.

    Great tips. And Like Jen said above, when do we find out how to make millions blogging?

  14. James says:

    Hi You All I am bit new on this blog site. But find problogger is great blog site. This blog on tips for headlines writing is also. I will definitely try out these tips.

  15. My headline ideology is basically to be anything BUT a newspaper headline. Generic is boring.

  16. “There is no secret”…True, nothing is secret on Internet because Google knows every thing, every page! Until you’ve invented something :)

  17. Avoid exclamation points! :) Point well taken.

  18. Daniel says:

    Love the title “Haters Want to Hate or: If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan, Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets”

    Fab

    I’m gonne have “F*** You Hippy” in the title of my next ten posts!!!

    Really useful post thought, thanks – I think the take 5 minutes to come up with a new title is a really good tip

    I think leaving the title as the last thing you write when you do a post can help with this to.

    Don’t be funny if your not funny is also a good tip!

  19. Great article and the tips are very good. I also think that exclamation points are worthless.

  20. Ayngelina says:

    I take exception to number 6. Two months ago I wrote my most popular post – The Secret I´m Most Afraid to Tell You and a lot of people read simply for the headline

    • Eric C says:

      Sounds like it was an actual secret. I meant secrets to weight loss or making money online. But if it was a real, juicy secret, it probably worked.

  21. Ayngelina says:

    I take exception to number 6. Two months ago I wrote my most popular post – The Secret I´m Most Afraid to Tell You and a lot of people read simply for the headline

    • Eric C says:

      I read that post and it was a good one.

      Maybe I should clarify. Your secret was an actual secret, something personal to only you. Your actions were, actually, secret to the rest of us.

      I was more referring to secrets to losing weight, or making money online.

  22. Guy Hogan says:

    I do need to give more attention to my titles and this article is just the kick in the butt that I need. Thank you.

  23. Guy Hogan says:

    I do need to give more attention to my titles and this article is just the kick in the butt that I need. Thank you.

  24. Lindy Mint says:

    I’ve recently been selling lots of my husband’s old guitar magazines on eBay. In every listing, I include the main headline of each magazine. I found that the older magazines had really boring headlines, like “Learn to Play Blues,” or “Cool Licks.” The newer magazines had cooler titles, like “How to Shred ’till Your Hand Falls Off.” Interestingly, the magazines with the cooler titles went for more money.

    I like to try to add a little intrigue to my titles. Maybe something that makes a reader wonder, what is she talking about? Think if your article was included in a carnival or a round up, would someone who’s never heard of you be enticed to click on it? Writing good titles is hard, and I mostly suck at it, but it is so important.

  25. This is something I struggle with a lot. Most time my titles are too long or not descriptive. I want to tell readers what’s in the article, but I’m not sure how to do it in less than a few words. It’s tough because me being a full-time student, I don’t like to spend a long time on post titles, my time is important. So I always end up picking something that could be better. But I’ll take these tips and hopefully come up with some better titles.

    Thanks.

  26. Wow that was a really funny article, I thin we have all sat in front of our blogs trying to think of a clever title. I guess I should lose all the examination points and over exaggerations

  27. seenu says:

    What I learned from this article is that title of the blog post should be different. If the title is somewhat different though the content is similar to other blogs you get good ranking in the search.

  28. Thomas says:

    I like the tip about brainstorming on the title. The title is too imported to just rush by. If the title is not good nobody will read an awesome post.

  29. “Every headline needs to do two things:

    Explain honestly what is in the article.

    Make you want to read that article.”

    —- That’s almost all of it, in short! Thanks.

    My blog – http://www.copy-e-writing.in/blog – is the result of your inspiration to be honest. Thanks.

  30. MelissaVA says:

    Great post, Eric and Mike. I guess search optimization is one of the culprits behind some really bad (by your standards, anyway) headlines. Given that almost all Internet users are lazy, and when they search for something, they almost always expect that using “best” or “greatest” will narrow down their search to that ultimate, bestest article. Which is why we keep seeing a lot of supposedly “greatest,” “super,” “killer,” and “absolutely fantastic” tips and posts online. With the proliferation of superlatives online, I’ve always found that what’s simple and true always get the most attention.

    Very clever observation you pointed out.Using “secrets” in the context of the Internet does seem almost oxymoronic. Now I’d be wary of any blogger letting me in on theirs.

  31. Justin says:

    Thanks for your tips on writing headlines, and for making me laugh out loud with your ‘Violence in context’ turned ‘Haters Want to Hate or: If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan, Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets’. I have to say that one took me by suprise. I find writing headlines one of the most challenging aspects of blogging- often balancing ‘boring’ with ‘over-the-top’ or ‘dishonest’ (as you noted), and also trying to stay away from cliches. As some other commenters have noted, the brainstorming is a really great idea.

  32. You definitely must have a catchy headline that will get people to want to read your article. Humorous articles are the best. They will make people want to return to your blog over and over again!!!

    Lawrence Bergfeld

  33. Kyle Logue says:

    I love how simple this article puts it. I usually rewrite my titles 3 or 4 times before I land on something I like.

  34. Just started my pickup blog a few days ago. I wrote some really solid content, but just realized that my headlines aren’t rocking it yet. Thanks for the advice here mate, solid gold.

    - Luv Jack-Stripper

  35. Jerrick Yeoh says:

    That good that you able to think out a good title in 5 minutes, i take more than 15 minutes.
    Most of the first title they may use something show more informative and serious. Then subtitle just show more funny title. It risk to use funny title because not everyone will understand it. Do know your reader well, which title will attract them , which title will keep them away.

  36. Marco Paulo says:

    This is a very interesting read Eric and Michael. It’s so hilarious and very helpful. I like the idea of incorporating humor with the headline. It grabs more attention and it makes the reader feel the need to read the whole story right away. By the way, “Haters Want to Hate or: If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan, Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets, made my friends and I laugh so hard. It’s awesome. I’ve learned a lot from your post. I can’t wait to write a new blog. Great job guys