Your headline is the first impression of your story. Writing a great headline can be the difference between a handful of reads or orders of magnitude more. It can mean the difference between reliably growing an audience or losing integrity. Your job is to convince the reader to dive into your story, and then you must deliver. “When someone is trying to decide if they want to read a story, you don’t want them asking themselves: What does this headline mean? What is this story about? Why is this relevant? What will I learn?” shares Nadia Rawls, editorial director of growth at Medium. “You want the headline itself to be so clear that the only thing they need to ask themselves is: Am I interested in this story?”
In this guide, we’ll cover common mistakes and the best practices to strive for. We end with a few examples to help make this all more clear.
What a great headline looks like
The job of a headline is to merchandise your story and clearly convey what the story is about. Give the reader context about the story, and help them decide if it is worth reading. To make this decision, the reader needs to know what the story is about, and why it matters now. Make sure your headline addresses these questions. Strive for clarity here.
You want the headline itself to be so clear that the only thing they need to ask themselves is: Am I interested in this story?
Remember that the reader has not yet read the story. “When you’re writing headlines, step outside yourself to imagine seeing the headline with none of that context,” Rawls highlights. “Make sure that what’s clear to you about the story you wanted to tell and why it matters comes through clearly in the headline.” It can be helpful to share the headline with a few writing peers and see what they think the story is about.
Principles to consider in writing your headline
- Be direct. Your story is among many a reader is browsing. Be straightforward in what it is about.
- Use conventional language. Avoid jargon, and think of what makes sense in casual conversation. Know the language that your audience is familiar with.
- Focus on what’s interesting. Be straightforward about why a reader should read the article. Don’t bury or hide this.
- Deliver on your promises. You’re building a relationship with your readers. The headline sets the expectations, and the story must deliver on that.
Guiding questions to consider in writing your headline
- Could the headline be clearer?
- Is the headline specific enough?
- Does the tone reflect the voice or point of view of the article?
- How might the headline convey what is unique about the story?
- Is the headline clear and honest about what the story offers the reader?
You should use both a headline and a subheadline. Use title case in your headlines and sentence case in your subheadlines. Make sure to format your header as well.
What to avoid in writing a headline
A few simple qualities to check at the start: don’t use all caps, avoid typos, don’t make the headlines links, and avoid profanity. These are part of the curation guidelines.
It can be tempting to appeal to base instincts to get clicks. You may want to use exaggeration or mystery for a click. This is clickbait. You’ve seen this technique used for stories, and it might seem appealing. The issue with these methods is they may leave the reader wondering if what they read was actually worth reading. In the short term this may help drive traffic, but in the long term it undermines your integrity as a writer. It degrades the experience for the reader. Exercise caution with particularly bold, hyperbolic, absolutist, or deliberately provocative claims in your headlines. If the headline exploits the readers’ emotions and insecurities, it is likely clickbait.
You may want to be poetic, clever, or artistic in the title. The challenge with crafting a title this way is that it becomes opaque. It’s also much easier to write a bad title when striving for something poetic or clever than if you’re going for clarity. In most cases, the reader won’t click to find out more because they didn’t understand what the story was about in the first place. If you want to be poetic or clever in your headline, follow it up with a strong subheadline.
Avoid obvious questions as a headline. Instead, see if there is a way to highlight the tension that the story conveys. Note that if a reader doesn’t share this question, they’ll skip over the piece. Also note that even if they do, they might skim the piece to find the answer, and leave.
Avoid biases in the title. “Be aware of who is in the room writing the headline and what the limits of their perspective might be,” shares Rawls. Often biases will show up in the adjectives you use, so double-check the ones you use, and consider what they may unintentionally express.
If you find it challenging to come up with a clear headline, this might say something about the piece itself. Take a look at it again. It may lack focus. Is it clear what your story is about? Might it be helpful to restructure it, or add a stronger throughline? For this reason, it is useful to articulate a working headline early on.
“The Secret to Finding Your Meaning in Life (Hint: It’s Not What You Think)”
There is an intentional curiosity gap here. The title could more directly reflect the skills encouraged in the article.
“10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your Love Life”
This exploits possible insecurities of the reader. It also overpromises a quick fix while giving a vague sense of solutions. What is the core of the advice given? The headline should be more direct and specific.
“Soft Drinks and Health and Wellness Can Coexist in the U.S. Alcohol Space.”
This headline can be clearer and streamlined. The phrase “alcohol space” is confusing.
“How to Talk to an Employee Obsessed With Promotion.”
This headline is focused, direct, and specific. You know what you’ll get from reading this story.
“This Terrifying Chart Helps Me Get Things Done”
Does the story deliver on the promise? This might seem a bit over the top, but the chart it describes is a lifespan chart that highlights how finite life is. Mortality can be terrifying.