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.
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:
- Explain honestly what is in the article.
- 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:
- Avoid exclamation points, or titles that feel like they need exclamation points. Seriously. Calm down.
- Avoid non-ironic hyperbole. It probably means your claiming something you can’t follow up on.
- 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.
- 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.
- Take five minutes on every post and brainstorm a better title.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.