How Can I Write Better Headlines? Here’s What to Do

How Can I Write Better Headlines? Here’s What to Do

By Julie Rogers

Headline writing is an art. You can even win awards for it. (As the managing editor of the Awards and Personalization Association, I’m well aware that there are awards for expertise in just about everything—but headlines might be a new one for you.)

The Illinois Press Association assesses headline award entries based on “clarity, cleverness, and imagination of the headline writer and whether the headline captures the essence of the story.” Similarly, the American Copy Editors Society says, “Entries are evaluated not just on the cleverness of the headlines, but on their sophistication, uniqueness, appropriateness, and likely success in capturing readers’ attention.”

Many entries into those contests come from daily newspapers, where editors are producing headlines under strict rules regarding space and tight timelines. In association management, we need to write a lot of headlines, too, but we have a little more elbow room to craft great headlines. Most of the headlines we deal with are for informational articles or copy for our membership. There’s not as much call for “clever,” but they must convey the gist of the story while enticing readers.

Here are some things to keep in mind to write headlines that entice your readers and increase your opportunity to engage with your members. I’ll even encourage you to break a few old-school rules!

Know your vehicle.

The vehicle we’ll use to send out this info helps determine the headline’s priorities. For example:

  • For an e-mailed article, I want the headlines to be as scannable as possible: no intricate phrasing and nothing so long that you have to run your finger along the screen to track where you are in the headline.  They should be quick to read and easy to understand. 
  • For a piece in HTML on the website, headline crafting may take a backseat to SEO. Optimized headlines don’t always read well to humans, unfortunately, but someone who Googled the right terms to come to your page will likely check out at least the first paragraph of text (which can be written to appeal to humans) rather than just the headline that was written to appeal to our Google overlords.
  • A printed magazine article would have another priority: a visually appealing headline (no full first line and second line that has a single word) that doesn’t break in the middle of a phrase or pair of words that need to stay together. (Breaks aren’t a priority in digital vehicles with responsive designs because the breaks change based on how they are viewed.)

Write for your readers.

Tailor your headlines so they appeal to the different audiences you communicate to. Use different headlines for different groups of people.

  • Headlines on articles written for your members can use both your association’s acronym (sparingly) and some jargon from their industry or field.
  • When you’re writing to prospective members, terminology specific to your organization and heavy use of your acronym alienates prospects. But feel free to use a little jargon specific to their field, not just your association, that can quickly communicate that they’ve found a community of like-minded people.
  • Ditch the jargon and acronyms for the public and the media. You’re asking them to read about you; you don’t want to alienate them or make them feel like we’re trying to say we’re superior for knowing what a specific medical term means, for instance.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

Write headlines that are about the reader. What action do you want them to take? What in the story is important to them? How will a new membership benefit help them? If you find that all of your headlines are starting with the name of the association, your headlines might be a little more self-involved than they should be.

“Association Name Launches New Platform launched for Member Community” is all about you. Make it all about the member reader with something like “Join our new member community,” “Connect with Colleagues in New Platform,” or “Are You Ready for an Improved Community Experience?”

A side note: Make the story match the new focus on the member! If you’re holding board elections, the headline “Vote in Association Name Election” will be undermined if the first two paragraphs offer up the history of the election process or how the election committee collected nominations. When possible, lead with what’s important: the member reading right now.

Are questions lazy? Nope.

There’s an old-school no-no in headline writing: Headlines can’t be questions. The only people who tried to justify this to me suggested that it undermines the authority of the source by suggesting we a.) couldn’t be troubled to find out the answer or b.) don’t actually know the answer and are therefore not trustworthy. Why don’t I put any stock in that?

  • We, the association, are not presenting ourselves as the final word in all knowledge and asking questions doesn’t imply stupidity.
  • The prevalence of frequently asked questions (FAQs) web pages have trained readers to look for headlines that are questions in order to find the answer to their exact question or concern.
  • Search engines have shown us that people like to ask questions when seeking information. In the early days of search engines (AltaVista, baby!), we were encouraged to search by keyword and even some Boolean operations. Now, people are handling it like Jeopardy! and putting their queries in the form of questions. Based on the year’s search engine queries, Google called 2020 “the year the world asked ‘why?’.”

Avoiding questions as headlines looks like a move to try to be superior to the rest of humanity, and that’s just not what we’re here for. Can we break this rule? Yes.

“We,” “I,” and “you” aren’t four-letter words.

Some old-school copy editors believe that “we,” “I,” and “you” have no place in proper headlines. But I suggest breaking this “rule” regularly to really connect with your readers and members. “Association Name Hosts Virtual Summer Meeting for Members” isn’t as inviting as “You’re Invited to Join Us for our Summer Meeting” or “We’d Love to See You this Summer.” Even worse are stilted constructions that use “one” in a desperate move to replace “you” and earn Miss Manners’ respect. “One Can Find Specialty-Specific Resources for Continuing Education.” That’s awful, right?

Formality isn’t what it used to be, especially in a pandemic-ravaged world where the prevalence of working from home has made dress pants a distant memory for many of us. Let’s embrace the words that connect us.

Knowing what you should do to write better headlines put you on the right path, but it may not be enough to save you from breaking rules we do need or falling victim to some common pitfalls. To avoid this fate, check out part two of this article, What Not to Do When Writing Headlines, which will be posted soon.

Julie Rogers is a senior content marketing and editorial manager in the Creative Media Services (CMS) department at 911.

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