The secret science of writing headlines

by | Oct 2, 2018 | Content

We see plenty of headlines each day. From reading Metro on the bus to work to trawling through a BBC app, we all scan headlines searching for content that’s relevant to us.

At their best, they grab your attention and lead you into reading the article. At their worst, they can frame a story in a certain way that sets the tone for how you digest the rest of the content.

Writing pithy and occasionally humorous headlines was previously (and strictly) the role of a skilled sub-editor, usually one who worked on a tabloid newspaper like The Sun.

Like them or loathe them, tabloids really nailed the art of headline writing. Using puns, alliteration, sarcasm and sensationalism to marry words and imagery together.

While newspapers are in a seemingly terminal state of decline, the art of headline writing is constantly evolving to suit an increasingly digital audience with a typically short attention span.

The internet is reshaping the art of headline writing, and it remains a complex task for those brave enough to do it. Here are a few insights to consider.

The evolution of headlines from print to digital

My favourite headlines usually involve a play on words, tweaking a popular quote, expression or lyric.

One of the best headlines ever written

Used in the Scottish Sun on 9 February 2000, this brilliant newspaper headline would be useless for SEO in 2019.

For instance, ‘Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious’ (applying a touch of Mary Poppins’ supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to Celtic’s shock defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle) or ‘Pedigree gum’, which was recently used to describe how Maggie the pet pooch was sneaking into her owner’s room while he was sleeping and stealing his dentures.

Both these examples would rank poorly in terms of search engine optimisation (SEO), which helps your readers find your content on Google, and you can clearly see how the skill of writing great headlines has evolved.

From an SEO perspective, the reader is far more likely to find my favourite headlines by searching ‘celtic inverness caledonian thistle cup’ or ‘dog steals dentures’. You can see the difference, and the increasing reliance on including keywords to get your online content seen on Google.

A few years ago, as websites such as BuzzFeed fuelled the creation of clickbait, their headlines sometimes became over-optimised, as professional jargon has it.

In other words, they were so good at making people click that they often ended up looking at content that wasn’t actually helpful or interesting.

This is counterproductive – you don’t want potential clients feeling as if they’ve been misled, or frustrated after clicking through to your content.

Optimising headlines doesn’t have to be dull

There’s no getting away from the fact that SEO has changed the way headlines are constructed, and the obvious dangers are that it can make them too boring.

Some of the core principles of headline writing still apply when it comes to digital: it still needs to be active, accurate, clear, snappy, unambiguous – and where possible, should include some of your wit and personality.

It’s not only us who are on the ball when it comes to writing SEO-friendly, witty headlines. Our colleagues at AccountingWEB demonstrate this skill well, with examples such as ‘HMRC taskforce to expose adult industry‘ and ‘Deep Purple accountant rocked by ban‘.

If you need more space than this, the good news is that you have up to 15 words, or around 62 characters, to achieve this, which is generally much more space than those newspaper subs had to work with. Anything more than this will usually be ignored by Google.

Get in touch

Writing headlines for print or digital audiences remains an art, and our editorial team possesses experience and knowledge from both sectors to provide a solution for you.

Clients of ours who receive our content for accountants service know the value of that, so why not hop on the bandwagon by contacting us to see how we can help your business.

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