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Thursday, February 9, 2006

Do You Give Good Headline?

Headlines are key elements of news and feature articles (and blog posts). A good headline is the difference between catching someone's attention and losing it forever. This may not matter much in every situation, but if you've sent in a piece on spec (that is, in the hope that an editor will publish it) then a good headline is the way to catch the eye of the first reader. This also applies to press releases. Dozens of these cross an editor's desk each day and the ones with eye-catching headlines stand a better chance of being published.

What do headlines do?

Headlines draw attention to the content of your story. In some cases you may choose to refer directly to the story; in others you may prefer to make a pun or joke that will draw the reader in with humour. Be careful of this approach, though, as not everyone will find the same jokes funny. The key elements of good headlines are clarity and impact.Use short, direct, concrete words and avoid punctuation where possible unless you're making a point.

How do you choose your headline?

Easy. What's the main point of your story? If you haven't got one, then maybe you need a rewrite. If you have, then that's what you base your headline on. Brainstorm around the key words of your story. If you're writing a blog post, the words you use to tag it may provide a clue. Another exercise which may work is to imagine you're sending a telegram (remember those? I don't - but I've seen them in films) at $50 a word. What are the essential words that will get your point across? Once you have those, your headline is born.

Headline writing is not an exact science. What works for some won't work for others. However, wcbelew's KISS advice for blogs works equally well for headlines. And a final word of advice: avoid hype. You don't need to use words like shock, horror and the like. They're so overused that most people are impervious to them. Stay away from the hyperbole and stick to the essentials.

So that's the theory, what about the practice?

I don't always get it right. I occasionally go back and change the title of one of my blog posts because it's not getting reads and it's obvious that the title is off-putting. For example, Working and Mothering was originally called WAHM, SAHM, Thank You Ma'am (which I think is better, but obviously didn't appeal). I couldn't think of a way to make ghostwriting sound more interesting. (Suggestions, anyone?). My favourite title is How I Put My Site On Steroids. I think it works because it tells you exactly what you're going to get, but does it in an interesting way.

Which of your titles have attracted most attention? Which posts did you think deserved to be read but fell by the wayside? I'd be interested to hear.

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