Without an eye-grabbing headline, your writing just won’t exist.
It’s like the sound in the forest that no one hears.
But, you argue, of course it exists. I wrote it. I published it. There it is!
Stick with me here. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. But first, I want to share a little story …
A Tale of Two Headlines
As an unknown with a new blog, my intention was to tell just enough of my story to give readers a glimpse of my background and what I have to offer. Why would they want to follow me? What do I know?
For some reason I kept thinking about rivers. I waxed metaphorical. The artistic surge was coursing through my veins. It felt so good.
This headline did it all. Readers would know it’s my story and they’d catch the play on a movie title. It was creative and they’d be curious, right?
The post was published on a Friday morning with the usual routine: click “Publish”, post to Facebook profile, share with Facebook groups, send out a tweet or two, and post to Google+.
My palms were sweaty with this one. I was sharing pieces of my life, following the advice of the pros: “be vulnerable”.
I received three positive comments in one of my Facebook groups and one comment from a peer on the blog itself, and then all went silent.
“I wish this had a stronger headline … readers want to know what’s in it for THEM … No readers without eye-catching headlines with keywords … Jon says if he has an hour to spend writing a post, he’s going to spend 45 minutes of it writing the headline.”
(She’s referring to top-blogger Jon Morrow of BoostBlogTraffic.com.)
Over the weekend, I tweeted and watched Google Analytics. All remained silent.
What was the headline? “My Story: Rivers Run Through It”
Bright and early Monday morning, I sat down armed with notes from other blogs, free e-books about headlines, and lots of examples. (All provided below.)
I started with the headline this time, which immediately shifted the focus. It was still my story, but the structure changed and the metaphor was gone.
I took the first post offline and hit ‘Publish’ on the new one, following the same social media routine.
You can’t argue with the numbers
The post on my Facebook profile received a “Like” and a comment within ten minutes.
Every time I tweeted the post, it was re-tweeted at least twice. (I’ve since learned that’s significant considering the speed at which posts flow through Twitter.)
My traffic climbed to four times that of the first post and I gained new subscribers over the following five days. The numbers were fun to watch.
But, my biggest high came when I read the comments. I was helping people; they were reading my writing and it made an impact.
What was this headline? “Are you afraid it’s too late for your dream?”
So, when does your writing exist?
For you, the moment you write it. Obviously.
But I’m not talking about personal writing. I’m talking about the writing you put out there, for others to read.
When you publish your writing, its primary purpose is simple: to be read. You may list off all sorts of other reasons why you publish, but the bottom line is that if no one reads it, it exists in your mind alone. It won’t exist to anyone else.
It’s like the tree falling in the forest. Without ears to hear or eyes to see, there isn’t anyone to acknowledge its existence.
Quantum physicists highlight the importance of ‘the observer’, whose presence makes real what had been just potential. In the writing world, our observer is ‘the reader’.
What about artistic integrity?
At first, I struggled with the idea of sacrificing my extended metaphor, along with the content that had touched a few thoughtful readers.
“Just look at Seth Godin,” I said in frustration, “he doesn’t use headlines that start with ‘how to’ or ‘# ways to’. Check out Colin Wright, or what about Leo Babauta? He used the headline ‘My Story’ for his story. All of those guys have followers in the thousands!”
That last statement is key: “followers in the thousands”. When those guys ‘break the rules’, their loyal fans are there, already reading them and giving them feedback. They’ve evolved their voice and style over time within the community their writing has created, in a loop of practice, creation, innovation, feedback, and response.
Bottom line: when you are the unknown beginner, there are rules of engagement, steps to be followed, chops to be proven, lessons to be learned.
I’m not a marketer!
“I’m not a marketer,” I whined, “and all of those headlines are the same. I don’t want to be the same.”
It’s time to get over it. As writers, we are all marketers. That includes novelists, poets, memoirists, academics … all of us.
A mash up of definitions might help you see it: a marketer promotes and sells goods or services in or to a market; someone whose job it is to encourage people to buy a particular product.
Does that sound like something you need to do for your writing?
If you want readers for your writing in this extremely noisy world, then you need to know how to market yourself.
And, even as your teeth grate at the thought of doing what everyone else does, remember that there’s a reason why everyone else does it:
“Because that’s what works to bring the greatest number of readers in. And if you never get readers to look at what you have to offer, the entire battle is lost.” ~ Sonia Simone, CMO and co-founder of Copyblogger Media
Not all is lost
Having said all of that, I don’t think it means you can’t be creative with your headlines.
If all of them started with “5 ways to clean [?]”, or “50 ways to leave [?]”, your writing would become seriously bland and predictable over time.
My most popular posts, so far, do not count, list, or ‘how to’. Not to say you shouldn’t use that format or that I never will, but there are ways to be creative too, if you work at it.
Below, you’ll find links to resources to help you get your creative juices flowing. So, all I’m going to do now is summarize what I’ve learned.
It’s brief and it’s simple. Headline advice that has been repeated, again and again, with good reason:
- The problem: identify it. This is otherwise known as the topic or keyword.
- The promise: make it. Readers should know what’s in it for them, implicitly or explicitly.
- The practice: do it. The pros make it look easy, but it isn’t. Practice, and then practice more. And, when something doesn’t work, use that feedback loop and practice again.
As promised, here is the material that helped me:
52 Headline Hacks, by Jon Morrow. (Free with subscription)—This eBook continues a long-standing tradition when it comes to writing copy: rehash and re-use. If you’re stuck, it’s one of the best sources to turn to. He breaks it down into types of headlines and within each type gives you a plethora of choices you can work with.
How to Write Magnetic Headlines, by Copyblogger Media.—Copyblogger offers this eBook in a bundle that includes many other free guides for online marketing. “Magnetic Headlines” gives you food for thought, at least it did for me. It doesn’t just show you what to do, but also tells you why it works.
Do The Wrong Thing: The Benefits Of Writing Unconventional Headlines, by Ollin Morales.—This was a guest post published on WritetoDone.com a couple of years ago. I like it because it suggests we can play a little with our headlines, and then lists ways to do it.
5 Easy Tricks to Help You Write Catchy Headlines, by Jeff Goins.—In this post, Jeff outlines a basic formula: Number or Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise. While I don’t like to stick to a formula, as you can probably tell, I do think they’re a good place to start.
Blog post archives.—Go to any popular blog and scroll through their archives which, for the most part, are lists of blog post headlines. When I found one that caught my eye, I clicked on it … and learned more about what caught my eye, and the eye of other readers, in the process.
Here are some good ones: Zen Habits, Exile Lifestyle, Seth Godin, and Chris Guillebeau (offered in his footer, by year). You can do this with any blog, even if they don’t identify an archive. Just click on one of their categories and a list will appear.
These resources are far from exhaustive. A lot of writers write about headlines!
So, I hand it over to you. Do you have any headline tricks to share? Are there any resources that you would never do without?
Even better, what is the most popular headline you’ve ever written? Share it here with a link!
Comments are now closed, but I always love to hear from readers so feel free to contact me!