Writing for the Web: Crafting Headlines and Crapping Convention
When creating great content for your website, from blog posts to landing pages, the first thing’s first: writing a headline. Let’s just hurry up and get this out of the way, shall we? After all, our readers can’t wait to jump headfirst into the meat of the content, right?
Whoa! Not so fast, Grasshoppers! Not only is writing a headline difficult, but it is also perhaps the most important aspect of writing for the Internet. Far too many writers waste valuable time, inspiration, and brainpower trying to craft the perfect headline right off the bat – before they’ve had the chance to write a single word of content. Luckily for all of us, there are a few crucial elements to this process that will help dumb it down even as it speeds it up.
Question: How can we possibly slap a headline on a piece that we have yet to write?
Answer: You can’t! (Or, at least, you shouldn’t.)
When building a new house, it’s usually advisable to pour the foundation before installing the roof. Writing a good piece of content with a likewise compelling headline or title is much the same. The title won’t fit the body of your content until that body has been carefully constructed with mesmerizing copy. Stake a headline on an amorphous blob of grey sludge and it will entomb itself in vague nebulosity rather than resting like a crown on a meticulously designed fortress.
A good practice is to first develop a tentative thesis statement; then craft a working title that includes a few keywords from that thesis statement. This won’t necessarily serve as your final title, but it serve as a beacon to remind you of your purpose and to keep you on track as you develop the body. Once you’re finished writing the body of your piece and are in the process of reviewing your monument of truth, you can begin giving your headline or title a bit more thought. In other words, the headline should always spring from the content – not the other way around.
Trial and Error
Don’t be afraid to fail with your first headline – or your second, or third, or fourteenth! Unlike the rest of the decisions you’ll make in your life, the first choice of headline probably isn’t the right one, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Often, the best headlines are an amalgamation of several previous ideas that may have been good but not quite perfect. Play with your ideas. Mix and match. Ask questions. Be direct, but don’t be afraid to give a sarcastic wink and ironic nod to your audience. Worst-case scenario: there will always be a place in this world for alliteration.
No, there’s really no need to fear failure. Combining your failures is usually what leads to success. What you should be most afraid of is when you have absolutely no idea of where to begin. The reason that there isn’t a single title or headline coming to mind is usually because your writing is distorted, incoherent, or perhaps even nonexistent. If this is the case, you might want to go back through and review your work once more. Make sure that your thesis is clearly stated and that each successive paragraph makes clearly defined points and follows a clearly defined order toward a logical and original conclusion.
KISS Sucks (In So Many Ways)
One of the most common acronyms referenced in relation to writing online content is KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. I couldn’t disagree more. Or rather, I couldn’t disagree more with the way that individuals choose to interpret KISS.
Most of us confuse simplicity for brevity, which is a problem because those two words have vastly different meanings. In any case, your headline doesn’t have to be simple, nor does it have to be brief. What it must be is relevant. Feel free to play with double entendre or litotes, as long as you’re confident that the wordplay incorporated is directly related to your topic and that it won’t go over your audience’s collective heads.
In addition (and contrary to popular opinion), headlines don’t have to be less than four words in length. Sometimes certain concepts simply cannot be expressed concisely. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, longer headlines have the benefit of acting as their own form of content and can intrigue a potential reader based on sheer length alone. One good method when dealing with a longer headline is to use a colon to create a sub-header. This way, you get the best of both worlds: you can give your readers an easily digestible title while also showcasing a bit of your creative side. This will show the reader that not only are they going to be getting some useful information, but that it will be delivered in a playful and skillful way.
The Last Will Be First
Writing headlines is sometimes viewed as an ancillary, insipid task that is secondary to writing the body of the piece. The problem is that research has shown us time and time again that readers skim web content rather than read it; thus, the headline is actually what readers will likely remember most. In addition, headlines can assist SEO best practices, boost your Google rankings, and ensure that your posts are shared on social media. Above all else, though, an engaging headline prompts the reader to continue on to the body of the content, which is all a writer can ever really ask for.
Feldman, B. (2013, May 12). How do you write the perfect headline? Unbounce. Retrieved from: http://unbounce.com/online-marketing/write-the-perfect-headline/
Smarty, A. (2014, August 11). How to (try to) write a perfect headline. Internet Marketing Ninjas. Retrieved from: http://www.internetmarketingninjas.com/blog/content/try-write-perfect-headline/