Making Headlines: The Surprising Secrets Behind Writing Smart Titles

Your title is a promise to the reader - the key to success is crafting it with care and delivering on it.

Writing a great title is a lot like getting dressed to find a suitable partner. Your title is the first thing people see, and whether they read any further often hinges on how interested they are after that first glimpse. Your title is a promise – and a good promise is hard to pass up.

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So how do you make a good promise? Do you make it short and to the point? Do you tease? Do you ask hypotheticals? Do you sensationalize? Do you make it witty? Different types of posts will call for different tactics.

The Basics

Writing a tutorial or walkthrough?

Put “How” at the head of your title or “Walkthrough” somewhere in your title. What’s the difference? A “how to” article will typically cover how to do a very specific thing, such as “How to beat Mother Brain in Super Metroid” or “How I got all the hearts in Legend of Zelda.” A walkthrough is a more in-depth guide that could, in theory, be broken down into multiple tutorials.

Writing a review?

Put “review” and the name of the game, gadget, or whatever you’re reviewing in the title. People will typically search for (and click to read) “Call of Duty Ghost review” over “My fave FPS for Xbox One.” Making sure those two basic elements are in your title doesn’t mean it has to be bland, though. You can still add your own take as part of the title: “Assassin’s Creed: As reviewed by a professional hitman” or “The cake was a lie, but it was no less delicious for it – a review of Portal 2.”

As may be obvious from the above, choosing the right keywords is important but indiscriminately filling a title with the most popular keywords may not have the effect you really want. If you’re concentrated on a popular topic, it’s very easy to get lost in the noise. Instead of focusing directly on top keywords when writing, focus on niches around them. How does your topic affect a specific community of players? Is there a slightly different angle you can take on a topic to offer a new perspective?

A Promise is also a Tease

It gives a hint of what’s to come, but it doesn’t reveal the nitty-gritty details. Putting a little mystery in your title (such as the “surprising secrets” in this very post) can go a long way toward drawing readers. Putting a little drama in your title (“How Apple is killing Nintendo”) can ignite passion in your readers, though you should be prepared for flames when you add drama.

Turns of Phrase

Wit and clever turns of phrase can also be your friend (when used sparingly). If you abuse hyperbolic or ironic statements for a cheap chuckle, you run the risk that your readers will take some of them literally. Maybe it’s the dad in me, but puns are also a fun way to introduce a sprinkle of humor. Don’t over-season your titles with puns, though, or the flavor quickly sours.

The last tool on your Wit Belt is the Nerdy Reference of +5 Charisma. When applied carefully, this tool can evoke nostalgia and tie your content to an existing audience simply by showing that you get them, that you’ve shared in their pleasures and pains. When used promiscuously, on the other hand, you risk destroying all your credibility; we nerds thrive on details and you’ll have to nail them every time to be effective.

Alliteration also attracts a lot of attention, but barely breaks even for buy-in. Seriously, avoid it. It’s a hack, and not the good kind that Dade Murphy pulled off in the canonical 90s film Hackers.

In Conclusion

If you think of your title as a promise, make sure you deliver in the post. If you spend a lot of time crafting a great title, spend even more time polishing the post behind it. Don’t overhype and underdeliver.

Further Reading

Want some more in-depth advice? Here’s a few good places to start:

Want some useful practice?

The best way to improve any skill is applied practice. If you want better headlines, practice writing them. Try a few of these practical exercises to improve your headlines.

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