How to Write Headlines That Do Not Fail
March 09, 2021
Three things sophisticated humans on the internet won't click—and how to avoid putting those things in your headlines.
Good headlines make people want more. As a human on the internet, you should know this. Less obvious, however—and based simply on the pace of belligerent attempts to rabbit-hole our attention (keep trying, guys, really)—is how to write good headlines. Readers of the internet, we're sophisticated; even children know "fake news" isn't a compliment.
As sophisticated humans on the internet, we're appropriately conditioned to swiftly dodge all brands of peddlers stuffing flyers down our throats. Welcome to a shouty junkyard of opinions, lies, and burning money that the average American spends a stomach-churning 24 hours per week browsing. It's called "the web" for a reason.
Where were we? Right. How to make headlines. Honestly, Neil Patel has basically already written the definitive guide to writing headlines, but in case you don't like reading great things (his stuff, not ours) we've adapted that advice to the topics we do most: education and careers.
In this article, we'll cover:
- Why headlines matter
- Three (preventable) reasons most headlines fail
- How to write headlines that do not fail
If you already know how to write headlines, why are you here? Maybe you found this article by accident, in which case click to our other writer resources, like:
- How to Write Articles People Will Read
- How to Define Your Audience: Best Article Topics for Students
- How to Use Hyperlinks: Best Practices for Finding and Formatting Sources in Articles
- A Complete List of Every College and University in the U.S.
- Step-by-Step Article Templates to Beat Writer's Block
Why headlines matter
Few people surf the internet with their eyes closed, and even those who do will, at some point, hear headlines before deciding to hear articles (read aloud by robots with British-lady accents, if you're lucky). In other words, anyone who decides to read your article (or listen to a medium-snooty robot speak your article) will do so because your headline doesn't stink. To write articles that will be read by humans and robots alike, it's helpful to know what makes headlines stink—so you can avoid doing those things.
Three (preventable) reasons most headlines fail:
There are 100 reasons headlines fail. We respect your time, and also, we know this isn't the scrolling olympics. So, here are the three most common mistakes people make when writing headlines.
1. The headline doesn't match the article.
Imagine something you never want to experience—like headlice, or a broken heart. Now you know how people feel about clickbait. Nobody wants it, and most will go out of their way to avoid it. If your headline is "How Social Workers Can Make $10,000,000 in Less Than 10 Months" you'd better know how to deliver that promise (also, call me). If for no other reason than the fact that our editors will reject you, don't be the headlice of the internet.
2. The headline is confusing.
When's the last time you saw something that made zero sense and thought, "That looks like a good use of my time"? Never. If your headline doesn't make sense, readers won't click it. Human brains like logic and order, which is the opposite of whatever "7 Reasons Why Harvard" is doing. Or, trying to do. If you want people to read your article, make sure your headline is clear.
3. The headline lacks intrigue.
Ever heard the saying "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" You keep doing you on Tinder, but don't give everything away in your headlines. If readers have no reason to click through to your article, they won't. This can be a difficult line to toe because, as mentioned, you don't want to be so mysterious or quirky that people don't "get it" (in real life and in headlines). Be simple. Know the incentive for readers to click-through, and be classy and subtle in revealing it.
How to write headlines that do not fail.
Good headlines are specific, unique, easy to understand, and communicate, as NPR puts it, "the spirit" of the article. Here's how to do those things.
1. Put the most important keywords first.
It doesn't matter how many times your mom's cousin shares your article on a networking site for people who went to colleges with cat mascots. If your headline is truncated, your message is lost. How, where, and when your headline appears when it is shared (or searched for) is beyond your control, so heavy up. Put the most important information at the front, so readers will see the keywords even if the rest of your headline is shortened or hidden.
- _"GMAT Math Prep: Every Math Skill You Need to Know (And Why)"_ is a good headline, because it front-loads the most important keywords.
2. Use numbers and data.
Headlines with numbers tend to generate higher engagement, because our brains are attracted to logic and order. Odd numbers apparently outperform even ones and, while you're at it: use numerals ("5") instead of spelling numbers out ("Five").
- _"5 Feel-Good Health Policy Jobs That Pay Over $100K Per Year"_ is a good headline, because it uses numbers and data effectively.
3. Be unabashedly transactional.
Tell readers what's in it for them. Why should they click your headline? Use words like tips, tricks, secrets, ideas, strategies, lessons, and mistakes. Be specific, so they know what to expect.
- _"Mistakes I Made My First Year of Teaching and the Lessons I Learned"_ is a good headline, because it promises very specific benefits ("lessons") to readers.
4. Deliver unexpected benefits.
Information is the foundation of any good article—but don't think for a second there's no shortage of information online. What makes your information better than the rest? Intrigue is what! Be unexpected, vulnerable, coy, and unafraid of personality. Inject all of these things when appropriate.
- _"Why I Turned Down My Dream School... And What Happened Next"_ is a good headline, because it hints that readers will learn something unexpected.
5. Set the clock.
An article that teaches you how to do something is good, but an article that teaches you how to do something in a set period of time is better. Many readers—especially those reading about education and careers—are incentivized by timelines. If you can tell a reader how long it will take to become a cruise ship nurse, or how long it will take to earn a master's degree in yodeling (both of which are real things, by the way), do it.
- _"How to Earn Both Your Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Just 5 Years"_ is a good headline, because it motivates time-sensitive readers.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org