A lot of great writers suck at titles and this is what they taught me about writing…

Seth Godin has a title that scored zero in the headline analyzer

Linda Caroll
Nov 14, 2018 · 4 min read

Seth Godin has a post title that scored zero in that headline analyzer everyone recommends. Seriously. Zero. Zip. No score.

It all started with a stupid thing I read…

I honestly think I suck at titles. Like, I pull them out of the damn air.

One time I had an article I thought was pretty good, but no one read it.
Like, NO ONE. A big fat ZERO.

So I changed the title and in one day it had hundreds of likes. Which explains why I started reading about writing better titles. Because, duh! Suckage.

Anyway, so I was reading about better titles and I read one weird old tip that said to write 50-100 titles for every article and you’d eventually get the hang of good titles. My first thought was — are you frigging kidding? Um — no!

(because, if I had to write 50-100 titles for every article, you’d forget who I was before I wrote the next article, because hot damn that’s a lot of titles…)

So I got this crazy idea to check out the titles of some of my favorite writers and see how they fared. It was supposed to be incentive, but it backfired.

Which leads back to Seth Godin.

His blog post titles scored really low. 0, 26, 41. One of his titles got a 72, but that’s rare for him. Mostly, his titles all sucked. At least in that analyzer.

Neil Gaiman didn’t fare any better…

I grabbed 5 of his blog post titles and tested them, too.
He scored 27, 71, 64, 46 and 57.

Neil frigging Gaiman. He’s won the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards. First author to win both the Newbery and Carnegie for the same book. And his blog titles suck. Like, capital S, Suck! According to the analyzer, anyway.

Liz Gilbert and Mary Oliver don’t even have blogs and their titles still suck.

They post on Facebook and — no surprise — their titles also suck.

Mary Oliver uses titles like “Spring” and “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass
Liz Gilbert doesn’t even bother with titles. She starts out with things like
Dear Ones…” or “Question of the day…

Buzzfeed, on the other hand…

I suspect the people posting at Buzzfeed and sites like that must use that headline analyzer religiously because they use titles like these…

  • This Guy Got Run Over By A Deer And The Video Is Kind Of Amazing
  • 25 Of The Most Powerful Photos Of The Week
  • 12 Tips for Better Sleep, From People Who Sleep Better Than You

Those titles scored wicked high. 74, 82 and 66. I can see why people would click those titles. There’s a certain “feel” there, you know?

Have you ever heard of Yellow Journalism?

Yellow journalism is an American term for journalism and writing that presents little or no legitimate or well-researched news, and instead uses eye-catching headlines, exaggerations, scandal-mongering or sensationalism.

The term yellow journalism (and yellow press) popped up around 1900, in reference to the big New York newspapers as they battled for circulation.

Because if you have a lot of newspapers competing against each other and you’re trying to get people to stop and pay a nickel for your paper instead of some other paper, it makes sense.

And it’s just as competitive here, right? We all still want your nickel, which is about what I get paid when you throw a couple claps my way.

Because when there’s so many stories and so many writers, it’s hard to be heard above the noise of the crowd.

So that catchy title thing makes some kind of sense.

Writers, I think, are artists painting with words…

After spending way too much time analyzing titles, I sat back and thought about writers I truly admire. The ones I analyzed and more…

Liz Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Seth Godin and so many more. Anne Lamott, Jenny Lawson, Norman Doidge. Wally Lamb, Paula Todd, Naomi Klein, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Julia Cameron, John Cleese, Katy Bowman.

Jenny Lawson makes me laugh until I cry. Neil Gaiman fills me with wonder at what one person can do with words. Liz reminds me of the power of kindness.

Writers, I think, are artists painting with words. They paint in the colors of joy or sorrow, discovery and delight and a thousand other splendid surprises.

My favorite writers don’t need headlines that rank 84 on the headline analyzer. I would read anything they write. It’s their voice, their art and their heart that brings me back time and time again.

Which made me realize the problem with eye-catchy titles

They appeal to people who like eye-catchy titles. It’s the same as the concept of the freebie. If you give away freebies, you draw freebie-seekers. So when you write those sensational titles, you’ll always have to compete against the other sensational titles for the attention of the people looking for that buzz.

My favorite writers didn’t build their audience overnight. I get that. They built their audience by writing consistently. By showing up. And I think that would be a LOT harder to do if you had to write 50 or 100 titles for every article.

Which pretty much means my titles are still going to suck, but I’m kind of okay with that. Unless they get no reads. Then I’ll change them.

What do you think?
Do you work hard to write great titles? I suspect that there’s a balance between getting attention and building the kind of reputation you want to have as a writer. I don’t think “sensationalism” is what I want to be known for, really. So, what do you think? Any weird old tips you can share?

xo Linda

All my writing, sorted by topic.

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