The basic rule of blog headlines

Much has been written about what makes an effective headline for a blog article (and I should thoroughly recommend reading @copyblogger on the subject of How to Write Magnetic Headlines). For example, I’ve read on various writing-related blogs that headlines should be seeded with keywords for the purpose of SEO, or search engine optimisation. It all sounds pretty complicated, despite assurances to the contrary. Perhaps too complicated. Because the bottom line is that there is a very simple rule to observe:

The headline must accurately and precisely describe the subject matter covered in the article.

Put like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s a no-brainer, and so obvious as to not need saying. If so, I think you’d be surprised at the number of blog posts which have headlines which do not describe the content of the article at all.

I imagine that it’s easy to fall into that trap, for one of two reasons. First, if you write for a niche market, and are well-known in that market, you might take for granted that everyone would pretty much know what your headline refers to. For example, I write extensively in the field of ICT in Education, and I’m in the UK, so I could safely assume that if I wrote an article on my blog with a headline like “Here we go again”, many people who read my blog on a regular basis would presume I was referring to cuts in support for education technology. Unfortunately, taken out of context, the headline conveys precisely nothing. It could, for example, be a declaration that I’m going to do more gardening or going to take myself swimming.

Second, if you’re used to writing for magazines, it’s easy to forget that in a printed magazine the magazine itself provides the context for the article, and that the article is one of an immutable collection of articles, not a stand-alone piece. For example, let’s suppose that I write an article for a magazine concerned with holidays in Britain. If I were to undertake some research which revealed that fish-‘n’-chips (fish and chips) at seaside resorts has gained in popularity, whilst sales of “saucy” postcards have declined, I might choose to give my story a headline like “More ketchup, less sauce”. That would be neat take on the idea that many people put tomato ketchup on their fish-‘n’-chips, and a play on the two meanings of the word “sauce”: both a type of ketchup and a mild form of rudeness.

Again, however, a headline like that on a blog post would be pointless because, deprived of the context of the magazine, people might assume the article referred to sales of ketchup and sauce. After all, what is in that headline, clever though it may be, to suggest an article about the habits of holidaymakers in Britain?

Apart from the obvious value of having descriptive headlines, in terms of attracting readers who ought to be interested in what you have to say, it seems to me that there is another aspect of making your headlines descriptive: courtesy to others. As I said in my article on bad headlines, little infuriates me more than reading through a table of contents in a book in a bookshop or library and seeing chapter headings like “All that glitters”. I can’t get a feel for the structure and content of the book from that sort of thing, so I have to waste time reading more of the book than I feel inclined to, just to find out if it’s actually worth reading! And on the internet, a lack of courtesy is costly because, as you probably know, nobody is going to spend more than (literally) a few seconds deciding whether to read your article. If they can’t even tell from the headline what the article’s about, they ain’t gonna bother.

So, forget word play, classical references or any other device that signifies how erudite you are. Write headlines that tell the potential reader exactly what they can expect to read about in the article.

Like the product featured in the advert (below), the article should be “exactly what it says on the tin”.