Rev up your headlines and attract readers with these 10 tips

Puns, labels, gerunds and overall vagueness will have your potential audience staying away in droves. Instead, follow this guidance to increase clicks and retention.

A great headline can mean the difference between a story that gets read and one that gets passed over.

So, what’s the formula that will produce compelling headlines that appeal to search engines as well as to your target audience? Whether you’re writing a blog post, news release or social media status update, try these tips for drawing readers in with your headlines:

1. Avoid vague heads.

These are actual headlines that have appeared in actual publications:

  • Prepare for the worst
  • Help me cope
  • Keeping it together

If your headline could apply to any story, you shouldn’t use it for any story. The best headlines are ultra-specific. Write a unique headline for your unique story.

2. Tighten loose heads.

These, too, are actual headlines that appeared in actual publications:

  • Preparing for the successful sale of your business
  • What is intellectual property, and why should you care about it?

Vague heads are less like headlines than story ideas. “I know, let’s do a story on what is intellectual property, and why should you care about it?”

A story idea isn’t a headline. Good headlines take time and effort to write. (For more on this topic, get in on this workshop .)

3. Forgo label headlines, and use active verbs.

In 1986, The New York Times ran a column about Canada’s campaign to forge a free-trade deal with the United States. The headline:

  • Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

Michael Kinsley, then the editor of The New Republic, declared it to be the most boring imaginable headline.

Label headlines—like Worthwhile Canadian Initiative—are boring. They identify the topic without saying anything about it. They are nouns or noun phrases without verbs.

Here, for example, are a few of the label heads that have crossed my desk lately:

  • Bulletins
  • Chemical update
  • Field distribution
  • Graphics systems
  • Strategy statement

With label headlines, you miss the chance to reach the huge and growing percentage of your audience who read only the display copy. You lose readers who rely on headlines to draw them into the story. You also sap the energy from your pieces, because labels have no verbs.

To fix label headlines, say something about the topic, and make sure your subject has a verb. Instead of:

  • Charity Collection for Geneva and Africa

Write:

  • Help African orphans, vulnerable children, Manchester’s poor

Verbs are power words. Make sure your headline has one.

4. Stop ing-ing.

Who decided that gerunds work as headlines? You’ve seen -ing headlines like these:

  • Introducing the Strategic Growth Incentive
  • Making dams safer for fish around the world
  • Ending Child Trafficking through Collaboration, Awareness, and Support

So what’s wrong with “Introducing the Strategic Growth Incentive”? It’s just another label. Those gerunds are processes; they’re nouns masquerading as verbs.

Gerund headlines focus on your organization’s deeds instead of the reader’s needs. They suck the subject out of the headline, and they substitute gerunds for active verbs.

When you find gerunds in your own headlines, rewrite. Use subject, verb, object. Then you’ll end up with power words like stoke, step, shape and turn. That will add energy.

5. Skip the buzzwords.

Chris Smith, senior lead communications specialist at Entergy, writes:

If you put a barbwire-fence headline at the top of your page, most readers will not trespass on your story. Or read it.

Not to pick on an otherwise fine industry publication that shall be nameless, but I saved for this column a recent, scary headline. Ready?

FERC, Maine Sign OCS Hydrokinetics MOU

This in a publication not, as far as I know, aimed only at the 12 people who know all those concepts. I know what FERC is, and I once bought shoes in Maine, for which I think I signed a check.

If you find yourself writing a headline with more than two acronyms plus a five-syllable word, maybe you should stop going to lunch with the engineers.

Also, if you’ve crammed “strategic,” “value-added,” “proactive,” “solution” and “core competencies” into your headline, it’s a bad headline.

6. Skip headline shorthand.

Copy editors—who must often squeeze sense into a headline or subject line with very few characters—have developed a vocabulary of super-short words.

You see these terms in headlines, but rarely anyplace else. They’re words like:

  • Accord for agreement
  • Eyes for sees
  • Flap for controversy
  • Inks for signs
  • Irk for irritate
  • Mull for consider
  • Nab for steal
  • Nix for cancel
  • Pact for contract
  • Pan for criticize
  • Scribe for writer
  • Slate for schedule
  • Veep for vice president
  • Vie for compete
  • Weigh for consider
  • Woes for miseries
  • Woo for persuade

Don’t use these words in your headlines. Instead, steal the idea behind them. Use familiar, one-syllable words to develop sharp heads of your own.

7. Don’t drop key elements.

Is there a deadline for responding to your message? Create a sense of urgency with a call to action in the headline.

Are you writing to a subset of your target audience: asthma sufferers, maybe, or single moms? Consider calling out to them in the headline.

If there’s a key element to the story, consider including it in the headline.

8. Don’t make the reader groan.

John Russial, associate professor at the University of Oregon, begs you to stop writing pun headlines such as these:

The pear facts about anjous

Plan for a fence at jail has some neighbors railing

Rail plan is … on track … off the track … at a crossroads … going downhill … going uphill … moving at full throttle … huffing and puffing like the little engine that could

Also, anything taxing around April 15.

9. Avoid confusing the reader.

Ambiguous headlines abound. Among my favorites:

NFL to ask its players to donate brains for study

Ouch!

Include your children when baking cookies

Yum!

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25

Yup! Or even after age 20.

Read more ridiculous headlines .

10. Don’t get it wrong.

Read far enough into the body copy to get the headline right. A catchy headline does nothing if the information it relays is incorrect.

“Make sure the big type does not contradict the little type,” Russial writes.

Here’s one that does contradict the little type, from Inc. magazine:

Hot Tip: Set Cost-Cutting Targets

Then the text says:

If there’s a single new trend in cost cutting, it may simply be this: Setting cost-cutting targets is out; rethinking every single expenditure from the ground up is in.

Think head first.

Want to persuade people to click and read, increase conversion rates and social shares, boost content marketing results and otherwise improve the ROI on your message? Write more-compelling headlines.

Headlines get twice the attention of body copy . They change the way people think . And they’re the gateway to your message.

Lose readers in the headline, and you’ll probably lose them altogether.

Ann Wylie is a writing coach and trainer. A version of this post first appeared on her blog .

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