An Inside Look at 10 Classic Headline Writing Fails — and Their Fixes

There’s one big problem that holds freelance writers back from earning more.

It doesn’t matter if you’re pitching a big magazine’s editor a story idea, or a top blog’s editor a guest post that could bring thousands of new readers to your blog.

The same issue gets your idea rejected every time. What is it?

Weak headlines

Editors get dozens of query letters every day. When they scan through them, what are they hoping to quickly find?

A great, intriguing headline that tells them what the story is about.

If it’s not interesting and informational, that editor moves on.

If you haven’t bothered to provide a headline for your proposed article or post, that editor moves on.

I’ve said it before, but learning to write strong, fascinating, informational headlines is critical to your freelance writing career.

It makes the difference between earning big and making peanuts.

Why doesn’t everyone fire off awesome headlines? Having just reviewed dozens of story idea pitches for one of my classes, I can tell you — writing strong headlines is hard!

That’s true in part because what’s needed in a headline has changed.

How to build a successful headline

The Internet has changed the definition of a good headline. Even if you’re writing for a magazine today, they probably plan to put that article online, too. That means you want to write headlines for the Internet in any case.

Newspaper headlines used to be both obtuse and complex. You could write a conceptual or witty headline such as, “Goodbye to All That.”

Which tells you nothing, really. But it didn’t have to, because a long subhead was going to come next and explain the actual topic: “Ice Caps Continue to Melt at an Alarming Rate.”

Increasingly, this construct doesn’t work. Headlines need to work online. And there are no taglines on the Internet. The headline has to do it all.

What does that mean? Successful modern headlines need:

  • Key words so Google can send readers
  • To be fully-fleshed out but not too long, so they can be easily shared in social media — about 10-14 words is good
  • Clarity about the topic
  • To create interest or build mystery to drive clicks

Where exactly do many headlines go wrong? Take a look below at this collection of common headline errors, with actual examples and suggestions on how to improve them:

1. Can’t tell what it’s about

If you go with the old newspaper-headline style, your headline often provides no clue as to the topic of your article. There is no tagline online, so you end up with something inscrutable.

Example: The Helping Hand That Wasn’t

This turned out to be about hospital admittance rules, but there was no way to know that from the headline. You can often fix these with a compound headline such as “The Helping Hand That Wasn’t: When Hospitals Turn Patients Away.”

2. No obvious benefit

When I asked my mentor Jon Morrow what the top problem is that he sees with online headlines, he didn’t hesistate. “No benefit.”

Readers want to know how their lives will be better if they take the time to read your article or blog post. Everybody’s short on time, so make it useful if you want them to click.

Example: 25% of Your Household’s Heat is Escaping Out the Windows

This is a “statement of fact” headline. Yes, that’s true…but so what? It appears you’ve given me the one fact you had on this topic, so I can move on without reading more.

This sort of story does better when it’s recast with a service-oriented headline: “How to Save 25% on Your Family’s Heating Bill.”

3. Book or school-paper style headline

I see this a lot with writers who are fresh out of school. There is a real difference between the way you title a school paper and a well-written article headline. School papers can have dull-as-dishwater headlines and still get an “A,” but that’s not going to work with a magazine editor.

Example: Sexism in the Catholic Church

This is a book-length topic — it’s not going to work for an article. Big topics such as these need to be narrowed down to work as articles. Has there been a recent case of sexism that is unusual in some way?

Remember, you’ll only have perhaps 800-1200 words in a typical feature these days, and often less in a blog post. So you’ve got to engineer your headline to promise just a slice or angle on the topic rather than everything that could ever be said.

4. Can’t tell who it’s for

You’ll lose a lot of readers if they’re unclear whether the article is suited for their interests.

Example: Sports-related Traumatic Injury in Children

Is this aimed at sports-injury doctors? Parents? Medical-school professors? You can’t tell here.

Turning it into “What Parents Need to Know About Kids’ Sports Injuries” immediately brings focus and lets an editor know if their readers would be interested in the topic.

5. Too preachy

Often, a writer will be on a soapbox about a topic. They want to convince other people of their point of view. Unfortunately, these ‘vent’ type posts don’t often get assigned by magazine editors. They’re looking for more balanced reporting on issues.

Examples: Dirty Deception: Are You Poisoning Your Garden with Bio-Solids?

Why Creative Thinking Should be Taught in Schools

If you have a topic you’re all het up about, write about it on your own blog, or write a letter to the editor. Or get hired by a newspaper that can support the months of investigative work and dozens of interviews needed to make your case.

This sort of thing will never pencil out as a freelance assignment — there’s too much work involved in documenting all your facts and interviewing people on all sides of your controversy.

You can report on topics you are passionate about — by getting out of the way and letting experts discuss the issue. That second one could be recast as, “Why Teachers Want to Add Creative Thinking Classes” — which would provide an opportunity to hear about why this is a good idea, but through the voices of professional educators, perhaps for a teachers’ association magazine.

6. Confusing

A little mystery in a headline can be good, as with How I Became a More Productive Writer By Doing This One, Simple Thing. But too much means readers have no idea why they should click — so they don’t.

Examples: Cell Shocked!

The Teacher’s Pest

I thought that first one would be about avoiding getting electric shocks…but the pitch turned out to be about high cell-phone bills when you travel. Whoops!

The second I thought might be about common bugs that infest classrooms…but it was about how to not be a helicopter parent when you have a special-needs child.

Always think about other all the possible meanings of words you use in headlines, to make sure you’re being crystal-clear.

When I pointed out the ambiguity to the writer of the second headline, she rewrote it to a far more useful headline — I can tell both who it’s for and what I’d learn: Five Things the Teacher Should Know About Your Child’s Learning Disability

7. Old news

If a story has already been covered a lot by the media, you’ll need something fresh to spin it forward.

Example: Would You be Ready if Hurricane Sandy Hit Your Town?

At this point, Sandy is probably one of the most-covered stories of 2012. You might propose a story called “Where the Next Sandy Will Hit,” in which you talk with meterologists and disaster-preparedness experts — now that would probably still get some interest.

8. Can’t sum it up

If you haven’t focused your article topic well, it’s easy to end up with overlong, rambling headlines that raise too many ideas:

Examples: Questioning the moral and ethical framework of caregiving institutions and why pregnant mamas are resorting to natural means of childbirth

Flight Etiquette: Five Flight Crew Tips on How to Fly Without Provoking Your Flight Attendant to ‘Pop’ You, or a Slide

Wind on too long with a headline, and your audience will wander off. Also, too-long headlines also sometimes cram in too many ideas, more than will fit in a single article or post.

Good rule of thumb: You should be able to say it without taking a breath.

For instance, that last headline could be shortened and made clearer as: “Five Tips on How to Fly Without Provoking Your Flight Attendant.” In the original, I’m not totally sure if the intended audience is flight crew or air travelers.

9. No key words

Those old-time newspaper headlines just don’t work now, but writers keep trying to use them.

Examples: Blame it on Dad

Leave Home Without It

Readers are just not going to click here — they’ve got no clue if you’re going to talk about cell-phone use or child abuse, or if the article is for parents or therapists or who-all.

The former example — which turned out to be about childrens’ fears of going to the dentist — was rewritten by the brilliant Other Den Mother Linda Formichelli as “Fear of the Dentist? Blame Dad.” She’s good, eh?

10. No market

You can have a fascinating idea in your headline, but if there is no publication it’s a fit for, it’s going nowhere.

Example: What Motivates the Wikipedians?

Sort of an interesting question — what does get those unpaid Wikipedia editors to do it? But the question is, what magazine would you see this in? I can’t think of one — or at least not one that pays well.

It takes practice to get the hang of writing a tasty headline that gets you the gig. But if you spend more time on headlines, there’s a big payoff: Your story gets better defined and becomes a whole lot easier to write.

Freelance Writers Den

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