7 tips for writing headlines that maximize your 15 seconds

As writers, we often value the “meat” of our copy or the creativity we used to get there. Sometimes, we treat the headline as an afterthought, the pre-stick bow we slap on an otherwise beautifully wrapped package.

The truth is, no matter how much we strategize, brainstorm, research, edit, re-edit and, simply, pound the keyboard, often our copy goes unread. In a study published in Time, Chartbeat found that 55 percent of web visitors spent less than 15 seconds on a page.

What do readers look at in those 15 seconds? Headlines.

According to a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only four in 10 Americans read beyond headlines for a deeper understanding of news. That means, in general, 60 percent of Americans are simply skimming headlines to consume their news.

The same is reflected in social media, where Forbes reported that 59 percent of article links are shared without ever being read.

What does this mean for us as writers? Our headlines, and subheads, may just be the most important thing we write. They have to have substance, and they have to make an impression, meaning they have to be creative enough to stick with your reader.

Here are seven tips for writing headlines that maximize your 15 seconds of exposure:

1. Consider your medium.

Writing a headline for a magazine article is very different from writing for a webpage or blog post. For example, I wrote the headline – By the Letter – for a nursing magazine a few years ago. By itself, it’s clever, but it doesn’t give the reader any information. It would never have worked as a standalone headline for a blog, but it worked in the magazine because I used the kicker/intro to explain who and what the article was about.

2. Identify your target audience.

Just like anything else you would write, knowing your audience is critical to understanding what will connect with them. Why should your audience care about what you are writing? That’s what your headline should speak to.

3. Check your brand voice and tone.

Again, the same rules as most writing apply. Be sure you are in tune with the company’s brand voice and align your tone with your objective and your audience. Is humor appropriate? What about industry jargon?

4. Focus on clarity first.

The clarity versus creativity debate is a big one, especially when you have precious few characters to get your point across in a headline. At WordsFresh, we believe a headline can be both clear and creative. But, I’m advocating for clarity first. If you have only seconds to get your readers’ attention, you don’t have time to be vague, suggestive or creative for creativity’s sake. What is the one message your readers need to take away?

5. Inject creativity, but be discerning.

Creativity is the hook that may just extend your 15 seconds, get a reader to share your link or make an impression that lingers. The key is to be discerning. We call it “cutting the flab.” Don’t just add adjectives or fluff to generate flowery language. Ignore the clichés and choose crisp, active words that spark interest or engagement.

6. If all else fails, approach it like a tweet.

I am a long-form writer. I like lots of room to breathe and build my case. The Twitter revolution initially gave me hives. But I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of Twitter and social media as great practice for writing short, direct messages. If you’re having trouble writing a headline, think of it as a tweet. How would you reduce the context of this article for Twitter? The caveat is your headline should be even shorter than 140 characters, but it’s a good exercise to get you thinking small.

7. Be consistent.

Don’t just exert all your creative muscles on the headline. If your piece has subheads, give them just as much attention as the headline and make sure their tone and style match. Subheads are your secondary source for precise message delivery.

Need help with a headline? WordsFresh does that. Contact us to get started.

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