Headline rules! (blogging 101)

A good headline is short and summarizes the main message of the blog post. Learn in this post how to create such a headline, what to look out for in a good headline, and why “short” and “honest” are essential elements of the headline.

Note: In this post I use "headline" and "title" although they are similar. As I understand it, the headline may stand elsewhere and be just a link to the post, e.g. standalone in a list of posts, while the title always preceeds the complete blog post. The wording of headline and title is identical, which is why in this post I do not differentiate any further between headline and title.

The headline is the advert of your blog post

A beautiful swimming pool; imagine glamorous people around it

A beautiful swimming pool; imagine glamorous people around it

Imagine a TV advert: Beautiful, happy people are partying around a swimming pool. They are holding tall glasses of sparkling wine in their hands. One of the glamorous women giggles as she pushes another giggling women into the swimming pool. She jumps in after the other woman. Both continue their laughter and fun in the pool with more giggles and splashes toward each other. Life is good. The images, the music and the atmosphere suggests that life is fun. In the last two seconds of the ad, you are shown a strawberry jam brand. You hear praise of the jam’s quality. 

2014-3-snow

Would you expect this image to advertise strawberry jam? Probably not a good idea…

I bet you’d be irritated after the ad. What does the ad have to do with the product? Why were you supposed to watch the party around the swimming pool or look at the skiing scene when the message is “this is good jam”?

Now imagine a text with a funny, quirky, or even a glamorous headline. You become interested and start reading. You realize the text is not about the headline content ar all. Would you be irritated? I would be.

A headline invites thruthfully

A good headline summaries the content truthfully

A good headline summaries the content truthfully. In this photo, Iggy Pop is just the eyecatcher.

Your headline is the advert of the text. It must give readers a good indication of the text content so as to enable them whether to read or not. There is no point in creating a false impression. If the headline leads readers up the garden path, they will not thank the author. Nor will they become interested in the text. They will close the browser tab, leave the page, hit the road and never come back to this irritating blog where they trick you into doing someting you did not intend to do. (This phenomenon is true also for “click-bait”. See my link to a post I wrote on click-bait at the end of this post.)

Lesson #1: Provide a clear message in the headline. This clear message is the central message of the text that follows or a summary of the text. 

Show content at a glance

A good headline is short. “Short” means: Less than eight words. This has something to do with how much we can grasp at a glance. It also has to do with how much of the headline we can remember at the end of it. If you are interested in details, read up in the German book “DIe Überschrift”, see details at the end of this post.

I am sure if you make the headline eight or even nine words, it is still ok. Do remember, however: The shorter – while still informative, the better. Seven words or less makes a good size headline. 

Lesson #2: Make the headlines as short as possible. Recommendation: Do not exceed seven words.

As simple and straightforward as possible

Nothing is worse than not even “getting” a headline. While I realize that there are perfectly good headlines that I may not “get”, they are usually not for the likes of me as a target audience. Browse through my husband’s academic talks to find such headlines as “A pattern-matching calculus for *-autonomous categories” (http://carstenfuehrmann.org/academic-talks-and-notes/). While this is a perfect headline for his target audience, imagine someone reading your post’s headline and understanding nothing. Not exactly an invitation to read further, is it? (By the way, I have never read up on pattern-matching calculus for *-autonomous categories).

A good headline is like a good showcase or advert: it shows the content in its best light

A good headline is like a good showcase or advert: it shows the content in its best light

Some people also think that allusions to book titles or clever word games make a good headline. Again: If you are 100% sure that every one in your target audience “get’s it”, go for it. Do consider newbies, however; they may be interested in the content but you may never reach them because they may not have understood your funny joke or allusion.

Last but not least in the simple and straightforward advice: Use simple language. This means:

  • Make the headline easy to understand and unambiguous.
  • Do not use long or complicated words.

Lesson #3: Use simple and straightforward language to enable all readers to understand what the following text is about.

Style recommendations for headlines

The following points are stylistic ones, which may further improve your headline. I’ll be happy to elaborate on reasons if you are curious. Basically they keep the headline simple and easy to read:

  • Write sentence style headlines. This means: Capitalize only the first word and then all proper nouns in the headline.
  • Write headlines without a full stop/period (.) at the end.
  • Do not use abbreviations. Exception: The target audience is 100% familiar with the abbreviation.
  • Write the headline 100% in the same language as the rest of the text.
  • Write headlines in the Present Tense.
  • Do not use questions as headlines unless you discuss an issue in a personal or subjective way.  A question as headline indicates that a subjective view follows, not facts.

Further reading

  • Die Überschrift: Sachzwänge – Fallstricke – Versuchungen – Rezepte (Journalistische Praxis) von Detlef Esslinger und Wolf Schneider
  • See my blog post on click-bait headlines at Three reasons why you should not read this post. In this post I used one of the worst available headlines to illustrate my point about click-bait.

Blogging 101: Meet the target audience’s expectations

Why are you reading this post?  Why does anyone read a post? What can you do to meet expectations while achieving your own goal for writing? Find answers in this blogging 101 lesson.

Readers expect benefit 

You come with expectations. You want to benefit from reading this post. In this, your aims are similar to all blog readers.

A few of you are here because you may know me personally. You are group #1.  Most of you, group #2, have either a problem, or a task to fufill, or want to learn something new. This group #2 has found this blog post through a search engine or a social media post. Group #2, i.e. you and others similar to you, thinks that this post will give them knowledge they need, a solution to their problem, or instructions how to perform their task. If you disappoint this group, they are gone. Maybe forever.

Lesson 1: Analyze your target audience and your own goal for blogging. 

Analyse who you are writing for and what they expect from reading your post

Analyse who you are writing for and what they expect from reading your post

Questions to answer for your blog as a whole

  • What is the purpose and theme of the blog? Do your have several themes?  Which ones are they? 
  • Which group of readers is interested in your content? By group, I mean which gender, age group, are they students or business people, do they have specific hobbies or special interests, what is their mother tongue, their level of education, their reading situation, e.g. at home, at work, mobile, desktop, etc. Take time to analyze this! You may come up with several target audiences.
  • Do you need different blogs for the types and categories of content you provide? For the target audiences you want to address? Different languages? Different levels of depth of the content?
  • What do you personally want to achieve? What do you want to enable each target audience, i.e. what do you expect them to know or to do with the information? How does that goal fit with the target audience’s expectations? Can you make it fit? 

Your headline: Summarize the content in less than 8 words

Unless I give a good summary of the content in the headline, my group #2 is disappointed, quits reading, browses elsewhere within – hold your breath – seconds! This means I must make my point fast. As a matter of fact, I must make my point in the headline. The headline is vital: If it does not tell readers what to expect, i.e. a solution, the information they need, they are gone. Within two seconds!

Lesson 2: Imagine your headline as a shout across the road to a neighbor: Say the most important things only but do say them.

Imagine shouting across to your neighbour: your message must be short, clear and precise to be understood

Imagine shouting across to your neighbour: your message must be short, clear and precise to be understood

Questions to answer for each post you write

  • What would you shout across the road to another person to summarize the post? Remember that the shout must be short and to the point.
  • Does the headline truly summarize the content? Stay away from funny headlines or references that you think are suitable. Your target audience may not understand either and quit reading.
  • Does your headline address the readers’ needs or your own need? Make it about the readers’ needs.

Tip: I will blog about what makes a headline into a good headline in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.

If your potential reader has made it past reading the headline and is still interested and reads on: congratulations! Most readers will not even proceed to the first sentence. 

First sentence: Honor the expectation, talk about readers’ benefits

The first sentence must be the strongest of the whole post: If you are writing about a single point, give the most important information in it. Read any newspaper: The first sentence decides whether the news is worthwhile reading.

If, like in this post, you are evaluating a larger issue with several aspects, raise awareness of how the reader benefits from reading on.

Address your readers' expectations in the first sentence: Give them the most important information right away

Address your readers’ expectations in the first sentence: Give them the most important information right away

Always, always, always: Abstain from introductions, common places such as “as you have always known” or “it is a fact well known” or  any historic description such as “The other day I was thinking about such and such and thought it would be a nice idea to explain my thoughts to you as I decided to do in the following”. Your readers are gone! Seriously!

 

Watch yourself when you read the news, when you search for specific information: you do not want to listen to someone indulging themselves. You want the text to be about you, your problem, your need. Honor that need in your posts. Make it about the readers, not about you. 

Structure your post

Check the Yoast recommendations, which are really good ones. No need to say more:

Text structure

Use the free help available

Many blogging software provide out-of-the-box free advice. Use it. For example, use the Yoast SEO plug-in for WordPress. This helps you improve readability, structure the text, insert (sub)-headlines, photos, etc. The plug-in also helps you optimize your post for search engines (SEO). Free. You’d be a fool not to take this help.

Limit your post’s size

If you have made your point, achieved the goal you set up front, quit. This means: condense your content. If you cannot, because the content is so complex, write several posts. Few people want to read lengthy prose. They are here for a purpose. If they are interested in more, ask them to come back. Tell them what to expect when and if they come back.

If you want to learn more about what makes a headline a good headline, keep watching this space. My next post will be about headlines with good and bad examples, recommendations, and pitfalls to avoid. 

Do you have any specific questions or would you like to address a point I made? Contact me below or just add a comment.

Three reasons why you should not read this post

I feel strongly about click-bait. “click-bait” is a headline that peeks human curiosity without giving any actual information. To illustrate what I understand as “click-bait” headlines, I give you some examples:

  • Three reasons why you should not read this post
  • 11 phrases that no bus driver ever wants to hear again
  • Ten tips how to deal with idiots

And so on. This phenomenon is not restricted to tabloids or trashy gossip sites. I found the following three click-bait headlines today, 2016-10-3, in Germany’s Die Zeit online version. Die Zeit is a weekly publication in print with a current news online version. Both are supposedly highly respectable and sophisticated. Well, not in this case:

Three German examples of click-bait headlines taken from Die Zeit

Three German examples of click-bait headlines taken from Die Zeit

So why is click-bait such a bad thing? You may argue that it gets the author/the magazine the clicks they need to finance a good article, right? (More clicks equals higher advertising rates)

To me – and many other journalists, editors, etc. – it is a practice that degrades readers. Click-bait creates a curiosity gap in the same way that a mouse that runs by a cat creates an instinctive reaction in the cat, i.e. the cat must chase the mouse no matter whether it is hungry or not. While animals are subject to their instincts always and cannot ever prevent reacting, human beings work in much the same way. However, as we have evolved, we have also mastered the art of deception, something that very few animals are able to do. If they do, it is usually for survival, not – as is the case with humans – for abstract profit and clicks on a screen. So what I criticize is the deception, the hunger for personal profit, the misleading intention, the lack of real information, the lack of everything that journalism is supposed to be.

Don’t misunderstand me – if you are on Facebook or other non-journalistic media, you are in an environment that is understood to do everything to get the dollars out of your pockets, to cheat and deceive you. They may as well use click-bait to enhance the deception.

If you read news from a site that suggests it provides serious analysis of facts, that does everything to enable you to form an unbiased view of what happens out there, using click-bait is cheap and deceptive.

If you yourself are a writer and would like many people to read your articles, why not create news and insights that your readers truly benefit from? Why not tell them what the article is about in the headline? There are many ways of writing a strong headline that attracts your readers’ attention without sending them up the garden path. I will post about what makes a good headline for a press release or a blog post in the future. In the meantime, if you read German, take a look at the following:

  • Die Überschrift: Sachzwänge – Fallstricke – Versuchungen – Rezepte (https://www.amazon.de/Die-Überschrift-Fallstricke-Versuchungen-Journalistische-ebook)
  • Deutsch für Profis: Wege zu gutem Stil (https://www.amazon.de/Deutsch-für-Profis-Wege-gutem)

 

If you are irritated about this article and its headline, please let it serve you as reminder that yes, it is highly irritating if a) someone uses click-bait in the headline and b) it becomes aggravating if that person then criticizes the very concept they have just used. You never know what to expect in an article with click-bait.

And yes, no matter how hard you look, there are no “three reasons” 😉 Sorry if I deceived you 🙂