Every great article needs a great headline.
In fact, even an average article can rise to the top if it has a headline that makes people want to click and read. Headline writing is a skill, and like any other skill, the more you know about writing headlines, the better your headlines become.
With that in mind, I’m going to take apart six amazing headlines and show you exactly why they work — and give you six new techniques you can use when you write your next headline.
Let’s start with a recent article at The Write Life by by Anita Evensen. What makes this headline great? I’ll break it down for you:
- The “how to” element lets readers know they’ll learn something by reading this article.
- The headline uses the words “start writing a book,” not “write a book.” For a lot of people, the hardest part about writing a book is getting started. This headline acknowledges a lot of people have a great idea you know you can turn into a book — if you can just figure out how to begin.
- The phrase “use this trick” implies the article will include information most people don’t already know.
- The headline ends with a reference to finding enough time to write your book, implying the article will help you overcome the other obstacle keeping you from writing.
This headline works on people who haven’t yet started writing books, as well as those like me who are over 50,000 words into a novel but still have trouble finding the time to write new chapters.
The headline promises a unique answer to a common problem, which in turn gives us a reason to read the article.
This Fast Company piece by Stephanie Vozza uses a “why construction” to let readers know that this article will explain something we’ve observed but don’t fully understand.
In this case, the article is going to explain why “everything we’ve been told about happiness” — an important phrase, because it invites readers to recall all their knowledge on the topic — is wrong.
There’s a lot going on here. If you’re doing the “right things” but still don’t feel happy, you’ll read this article to learn whether you were given bad advice. If you’ve always been skeptical of aphorisms like “money doesn’t buy happiness,” you’ll read this article to confirm what you already think you know.
This headline is not structured like a question, but it asks the reader to consider a question anyway: What have I learned about happiness, and is this knowledge correct? You won’t know unless you read the article.
This article by Laura Roeder hit Medium’s “Top Stories” list, and I’m guessing a lot of it had to do with the headline.
This headline works because it leaves out most of the important information. What does Roeder mean by “get it?” Why didn’t she “get it” before? What happened this week?
The piece of information Roeder does reveal — she is a woman in tech — is also important. It lets the reader know this article is probably about gender in the workplace, which is relevant to both men and women in a variety of industries.
Some readers will click this headline because they have experienced gender discrimination and want to know if Roeder had a similar experience. Others will click to see if it’s a story about harassment. People in the tech industry may look to this article to see if it offers suggestions for improvement. There are a lot of reasons to read this piece, and a lot of questions that go unanswered until you click the link.
The listicle construction is a common way of attracting people to an article, but here’s why Buzzfeed is one of the best in the listicle business: This piece, written by Alex Finnis, isn’t titled “23 Pictures That Make Sense to Siblings.” It’s titled “23 Pictures That Won’t Make Sense If You’re An Only Child.”
With that slight adjustment, Buzzfeed makes its piece relevant to both siblings and only children — and chances are, you fit into one of those two categories.
Siblings will read it to be reminded of their childhood. Only children will read it because they suspect their childhood wasn’t that different from their friends with siblings. You can almost hear the only children thinking “What do you mean, these images won’t make sense to me? Of course they’ll make sense, and I’ll read the article to prove it!”
Many childhood experiences are universal, whether you have a sibling or not — and this piece is set up specifically so both siblings and only children can read it and think “I remember that!”
With certain types of headlines, it helps to make sure as many people as possible think the piece is about them.
I bet you’re already thinking about the answer to this question. You’re asking yourself whether smart people are better parents, what kind of intelligence is required to raise children, and so on.
You’re probably putting yourself into the answer, comparing your intelligence to your peers — and you’re doing this regardless of whether you are a parent.
Here’s what makes this headline brilliant: Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article is about a young woman with mental disabilities who successfully won a custody battle for her daughter.
The headline doesn’t ask you to consider whether a woman with mental disabilities is intelligent enough to raise a child. It asks you to consider whether you are intelligent enough, which means you go into the article ready to empathize with the young woman at the center of the story.
There’s one more piece you need to know about this headline: It probably wasn’t the first headline chosen for the story. When you click through to Miller’s article, the headline is “Who Knows Best,” and there’s another variation of the headline that reads, “How Smart Do You Have to Be to Raise a Child?”
Online publishers often change a headline after a piece is written to try new ideas and test results until they find the headline that attracts the most readers.
This Slate article by Heather Schwedel is not written in the form of a question, but it asks multiple questions regardless: Is this the underwear ad you saw last week, or is it something new?
If you click the link, will you see an ad that makes you uncomfortable? It won’t really make you uncomfortable, though — right? Underwear ads aren’t scandalous. Is this one more scandalous than usual? Have underwear ads finally gone too far?
Yes, you’re going to read this article because it promises a picture of Justin Bieber in his underwear. But the most important part of the headline — even more important than a shirtless Justin Bieber — is the part that suggests you’ll be “a little uncomfortable.” A lot of people are attracted to the slightly uncomfortable, from horror movies to those YouTube videos where doctors perform blackhead extractions.
You’re going to click this link to see if there’s something uncomfortable lurking behind it.
How to create your own knockout headlines
Before you start clicking on these six articles — because I know you want to — I promised you six techniques you can use on your next headline. Let’s review what you saw above:
- Imply your piece will answer important questions
- Promise a unique answer to a common problem
- Leave out key information
- Let the reader think the piece is about them
- Invite the reader to empathize with the subject
- Make the reader a little uncomfortable
How many of these techniques will you use the next time you write an article? As they say in the headline business: The answer may surprise you.
Do you use these techniques in your own headlines? What do you think makes a great headline?