6 Tricks for Writing Eye-Catching Headlines Your Editor Will Love

6 Tricks for Writing Eye-Catching Headlines Your Editor Will Love

When you’re pitching an article or writing a blog post, nothing is more important than your headline.

Goldfish have longer attention spans than Internet users, so how can you expect your audience to stick around for 900 words if they’ve already checked out halfway through your title?

If you want to keep readers locked to your content, try using these six psychological ploys that writers have been using for decades. Alone or in combination, they’ll help you create killer headlines.

1. Ask a question

When a person reads a question, one of two things happens.

On one hand, they may realize that they don’t know the answer to the question:

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Human beings are chock-full of curiosity. Once we find out we don’t know something, we feel an urge to shore up that knowledge gap. That blue, underlined text is a tiny promise that instant gratification in the form of an answer is just a click away.

On the other hand, they may think to themselves that they do know the answer:

Ever wanted a Glow-In-The-Dark Toilet?

Even if the answer is “no,” this tiny bit of interaction creates investment for the reader. A headline structured as a statement can glide through a reader’s mind without them forming an opinion, but a question forces a reader to personally engage an idea.

That may seem like a small thing, but even the smallest degree of investment is crucial on the Internet. Remember: You are competing with cats jumping and missing their landings.

2. Start with a number

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Before we begin a task, we generally like to know how long it will take. This is why the Pomodoro Technique is so popular and why the DMV is so unpopular.

When a headline begins with a number, it lets the reader know about how long it will take to read. Medium caters to this same psychological need by tagging each article with a length in minutes.

If your audience is in a rush, use a number to let them know you won’t take up much of their time.

3. Attach yourself to an established brand

The parody site Clickhole demonstrates how effective this technique can be by regularly posting articles that are effectively lists of celebrity names devoid of any context whatsoever. These lists generate enough traffic that they’ve become a staple of the site.

Some non-humorous examples include headlines like:

36 Things Everyone Who Loves “Jurassic Park” Will Appreciate

Should I Try the Matthew McConaughey Diet?

By attaching your article to an established idea, product, or person, you can “piggyback” off the reader’s pre-existing interest. Of course, this only works if the reader is already a fan of whatever you are attaching your article to. Someone with no interest in Matthew McConaughey or Jurassic Park (what a sad person) would be far less likely to click on the above links.

4. Begin with “How to”

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This may just be the most powerful tool in the box. Everyone has problems, and everyone is scouring the Internet looking for solutions. As a writer, one of the most useful roles you can serve in the lives of other people is that of a problem solver.

Starting with “how to” says, “Reader, I know you have a problem, and I sympathize with you. But the good news is that I know the solution to your problem, and even more: I’m going to show you how to resolve it in a series of clear steps.

That’s a lot of muscle for just two words. “How to” communicates a promise of no-nonsense, valuable content that the reader can put into action in his or her life.

5. Engage curiosity

Are you ready to know the writing community’s best-kept secret for engaging a reader’s curiosity? Don’t write another blog post until you’ve mastered this simple trick!

Ah, the neverending search for truth, treasure and secrets. Asking a question isn’t the only way to make a reader eager to continue reading. If you really want to hook a reader by the gray matter, use your headline to hint at secret knowledge you’ll reveal in your article:

9 SEO Secrets Every Business Should Know

Of course, in the age of the Internet, real secrets are few and far between. The combined knowledge of human experience is at our fingertips, after all. So what articles like the one above really do is dress up useful information in an alluring way. An article titled “Practical SEO Strategies for Businesses” might contain the exact same content as the link above, but the headline is far less engaging.

Another way to do this is to tell a micro-story that sets up a reader’s expectations and promises that they will be surprised. This trick has been around since at least 1926:

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started to Play!

6. Threaten

This can be something of a shady trick, but it’s definitely effective and this list wouldn’t be complete without it.

People don’t like the idea of losing something important to them. Deep down, we’re all scared to lose our health, our physical appearance, our children, etc… For everything a person can love, there is a fear that the object of our love will be taken away or suffer harm.

As a result, headlines that tap into suspicion, paranoia and insecurity always garner a lot of attention:

19 Signs You’re Dating a Loser

The Shocking Truth About Alien Abductions (They’re More Real Than You Think)

This technique is so effective and works so well across varying audiences that major news outlets have been using it for years in spite of the fact the world is safer now than it has ever been.

What are your nifty tricks for penning a compelling headline? Share your favorites in the comments!

Filed Under: Blogging, Craft
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16 comments

  • I would offer a word of caution: There can be a fine line between an engaging headline that grabs a potential reader’s attention and clickbait that misleads a reader about what the article itself contains, and in the competitive marketplace of information that is the internet, it can be amazingly tempting to resort to the latter.

    I urge writers to foster a relationship of mutual respect between themselves and their readers. Respect has to begin at the beginning with a headline that treats the reader fairly. Haven’t we all been victims of clickbait at some point? How did you find yourself approaching the article once you realized you’d been “had”? How did you feel about the author by the time you walked away from the encounter?

    In any profession, once a practitioner has taken the first step down the road to the dark side, it is hard to change direction. Be resolved that while your headlines will arouse a reader’s interest, they will not be so disconnected with your articles that the reader comes away unfulfilled.

    • John says:

      Hi Trish!

      You’re dead-on about the vapid trap of clickbait. No matter how grabbing an article’s title, if you don’t actually provide the reader with the kind of content that they’re looking for then you’ve done nothing but waste each other’s time.

      I hope I poked fun at hollow articles and sleazy methods enough that it’s clear I’m not advocating this approach.

      • Thanks for your reply, John! Certainly, I don’t think this article is by any means advocating clickbait, just that some writers may be tempted to take their desire for an interesting headline too far, if they do not remain scrupulously aware of the distinction.

        I believe internet users are getting more savvy to misleading tactics all the time, and before long, clickbait may be obsolete, anyway.

        We can only hope!

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        Freelance Editorial Services
        epiclesisconsulting.com

        • John says:

          >I believe internet users are getting more savvy to misleading tactics all the time, and before long, clickbait may be obsolete

          I think so too! God am I ever looking forward to it.

          One thing I really like about ClickHole is that they draw attention to clickbait in a really effective way. The website literally has no meaningful content. I’m not sure if this is an exercise in satire, absurdism, or Zen, but either way it’s beautiful.

  • I am a beginning writer. I was advised at a writers’ conference to start local, then go global. I’ve been submitting to local print and online sites and am starting to be published. If I like a blog post I’ve written, I submit it, always with ‘Alaska’ in the headline. Alaska is popular right now and it is working! I was published right away with a post on the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers.org site and the 49 Writers site in Alaska. I write about common problems everyone shares, such as commuting, garbage disposal, then include Alaska in the headline. It is working for me…so far.

  • Pimion says:

    Thanks for a great article!
    I completely agree with you, good headline is a half of your success.
    I use that number technique often to get visitors attention. And I think it works pretty good:)

  • Dustin Tingue says:

    Hi, Jon!

    Great article and I love the description of yourself in your bio, haha.

    A few months ago I decided to take the leap into freelance writing. Writing has been a hobby since I was young and I don’t know why, but it took a long time for me to come to the realization that I might be able to make a living from doing it. I’ve been buried in resources for a few months now and I start an online class in a couple of weeks.

    I’ve been putting together a WordPress site for my business which should go live after I complete the class and find web hosting. Ain’t nobody got time for a mybusiness.wordpress.com site. It’s gotta be your own .com name to get any traction these days.

    I’m going to share this article on my Twitter. In fact, it’s going to be the first tweet sent from my business account. twitter.com/pencapcreations if you care to follow. I’m just getting started with everything but I know how beneficial it can be to jump in on discussions in comment areas, forums and other spots.

    Thanks again for the great article!

    Take care,
    Dustin

  • kamilah says:

    I am a writer, new to this type of writing. I appreciate all the tips. What are some paid writing sites where I can submit my work?

    • Lisa Rowan says:

      Kamilah,
      The answer to your question depends on what kind of writing you do! For instance, we recently shared a post about where to submit short stories. The “Get Published” tab on the top right of our site should point you to more options depending on your genre.

      Lisa
      TWL team

  • Ezra says:

    Hello John, this is quite a wonderful article. The 6 tips are well discussed and they would work just fine. But John, I couldn’t help but notice the clickbait in your article. The title of the article is 6 tricks for writing eye-catching headlines your editor will love. First of all you wrote the article without any reference to the editor. Rather you concentrated on the audience. I want to believe that editors are people who look out for errors in your article. Secondly, I think you should consider changing the title or change the editor. Besides that it’s really a great article.

  • Allison says:

    I wrote a Throwback Thursday post on my blog about trendy wine cooler commercials of the 1980s, and my headline was “Do YOU Know Dewey Stevens?” I laugh every time I see it gets hits. I’m sure people are like “who’s that?!” and click on it. I got the question from one of the wine cooler commercials I found in my video collection.

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