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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26 comments on “An Inside Look at 10 Classic Headline Writing Fails — and Their Fixes
  1. Aasma says:

    Hey Carol,

    Nice tips, It’s essential to have short headline with your keyword and it should tell readers what they’re going to read. However “How to” headlines are more popular and generally attracts lot more readers.
    Aasma recently posted..Paying Guest in Delhi

    • Carol Tice says:

      I found that when I did my my popular posts of the year roundup last year,as I recall — How to was very popular. But also, headlines with some zing to them, such as my perennial fave Are You Letting Sleazebag Freelance Clients Get You Pregnant? Or a recent great one from the master, Jon Morrow — How to Triumph in a World of Naysaying Party Poops. Sometimes a really creatively written one can soar even without key words.

  2. Gabi says:

    Carol – this is really amazing, and what timing–I’m just helping a client overhaul their old, ineffective headlines into more reader and SEO-friendly options. I am literally going to use this as a checklist to go through their old posts.

    You’ve really condensed a subject matter most people drown reading about into an actionable guide. I’m going to pass this around as a little freelance holiday goodwill :)
    Gabi recently posted..27 Holiday Gifts for Your Favorite EcoTraveller

  3. Kristen says:

    Headlines are one of the things I have the hardest time with. Glad to see so many specific examples here.

    Do you ever try to build a piece around a good headline, or do you pretty much always aim to figure out a good headline to match the idea you already have?
    Kristen recently posted..Top 5 Marketing Mantras for the Digital Age

    • Carol Tice says:

      Interesting question! I think as I come up with ideas, I’m immediately trying to think of a headline for them.

      Because if you can’t, something’s wrong — the idea is too complex for an article, it’s not fully developed or clarified yet, or something.

      The big mistake we saw doing 4-Week Journalism school is people plunging ahead with an idea that’s just a broad topic with no headline. Big time-waster, as you don’t really know what it’s about yet.

  4. Hey, thanks for sharing my headline fix! And take heart, everyone — headline writing is a learned skill. Keep practicing, and once you have it down pat you’ll have that skill forever.
    Linda Formichelli recently posted..How to Write an Article

  5. J. Delancy says:

    Jon Morrow’s free e-book, “Headline Hacks” greatly improved my skills. Before using the book, most headlines were too witty or mysterious. Formacelli is correct, headline writing is a learned skill that can be improved.
    J. Delancy recently posted..10 Things She Wants You To Know

    • Carol Tice says:

      Oh me too! That and Sean D’Souza at Psychotactics’ report Why Do Some Headlines Fail. Both are terrific resources — folks can nab Jon’s at the link on his name up in my post.

  6. J'aime says:

    Point number one was really brought home to me when I set up automatic notifications on Twitter whenever my blog updates. They show up with just the title of the post and a shortened link. No further information! That is really motivating me to write more informative titles. As I’m brainstorming titles now, I picture how it will look, standing alone, as a tweet.
    J’aime recently posted..Are yoga props just for beginners?

  7. Joel says:

    Great post, I’ve never spent as much time on headlines as I should. Always hated titling things for some reason!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think you’re not alone, Joel! I keep getting queries to review that have NO headline in them at all. Just, “My proposed article about BLA will talk about X.”

      I think editors just toss them out. If your idea hasn’t gelled to the point where you can write a headline for your article, they’re not going to hold your hand through that process. They need you to already be there.

  8. Lisa Baker says:

    Love this! I got a chuckle out of your examples, too, since I recognized all of them from the Den! (Yes, I have read every single J-school homework post and tried to guess ahead of time what you and Linda will say. It’s been hugely educational!)

    One thing I still struggle with is studying a magazine to imitate the headlines. It’s hard for me to distill a list of headlines and find the common denominators that show what the mag wants in their headlines. Same issue with studying a blog for guest posting, although that’s easier since they’re all laid out together in a list. Magazines have so many different types of articles, it gets confusing if you stare at their TOCs for too long! Do you have any tips for that? I’d love you to write a post on that!

    Also, you mentioned a while ago — in response to a comment of mine — that you learned a lot from Jeff Goins about injecting emotion into headlines. Does he have any specific resources you were referring to? I searched his site and read archives but didn’t find a lot about headlines…or should I just be studying his headlines? ;)
    Lisa Baker recently posted..how sharing breastfeeding can change your life

    • Carol Tice says:

      No, I just started reading his blog and was looking at the huge engagement, and noticing how much he uses emotion words in headlines: scared, brave, terrified, etc. Connecting with those emotions I think really strengthens a blog post headline.

  9. Rob says:

    Another headline that flops is one that doesn’t tell the story it suggests it’s going to tell. I still get tons of traffic from an old blog titled “Bob Dylan Revisited on Wall Street” that I wrote at the height of the OWS movement. I wasn’t trying to be tricky – the OWS movement simply reminded me of some early Bob Dylan songs and I was “revisiting” them. Anyway, it gets tons of traffic, but the bounce rate is horrendous. People stay about 10 seconds and then leave, never to return.
    Rob recently posted..Lessons learned from a successful freelance writer

  10. Fun when I saw Lisa’s comment above. I, too, studied every critiqued input for this past JSchool. You helped me in so many ways (even to the point where I decided to just ditch my original idea for good reasons). At the time though, I suggested “pet” over my choice of “pal” and had a perfectly logical reason for suggesting the change. You were, of course, right (well the full explanation is in the Den).

    I typically start the articles I write for Im’ers from the headline down. For blog posts, it works that way about 99.9 percent of the time. There’s been a time or two where I think, oh great, I forgot to even give this one a title (but thankfully not before I published!).

    Headline Hacks… what a great resource. Although I will say your “sleazebag” one really grabbed me.

    So when you’re stuck, go to the tried and true. If not, why not try something totally off the wall (but adds value/informs at the same time). I still laugh at the pregnant idea :)
    Theresa Cahill recently posted..How to Use 3 Minutes Wisely

  11. Great advice! Something to add to #5 – it really depends on the publication and your audience. I have had a lot of success being “preachy” in my work for political blogs…for instance, pointing out something appalling a politician has said or done, legislators refusing to pass an important bill, etc. Indignation goes a long way in political opinion pieces. But it really only works in certain situations and it can definitely backfire. Not really good for stuff targeting a more general audience.
    Julie M. Rodriguez recently posted..7 Steps to Beat Writer’s Block For Good

  12. Thank you. I try to give examples in my writing and I always appreciate when someone gives practical examples and illustrations. These are percise and helpful. I have read lots of information about writing titles, but I thank you for showing how this has changed in recent years.
    Peter D. Mallett recently posted..Computers, Conferences, and Coffee

    • Carol Tice says:

      My pleasure — I find many people coming out of journalism struggle with it as well because of our experience with print headlines, which is not the best way to write a headline today, especially for online markets.

  13. I did laugh in particular at the #1 headline fail ‘Can’t tell what it’s about’. I mean, who has got time to go and read an article just to find out what it’s about?

    Here’s another type of headline fail that really gets me hot under the collar: ‘Headline doesn’t match what article is about’.

    OK, you may at least have people reading these articles based on headline. But when they read on and find that the article doesn’t live up to the headline promise, they ain’t gonna be best pleased.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..5 world-class blogs that every content writer should read

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m with you, Kevin. Many writers are worried about ‘giving it all away’ in the headline, but if it’s a total mystery, no one will bother to investigate what you might be writing about. Biggest mistake I see.

      Another headline like that I saw in the past was “Watch out for the red flags.” Who should watch out for them? Red flags in what — hiring a plumber? Give us a hint, please!

  14. Thanks for this article Carol.

    This is an area that I really want to focus on this month, and your examples really spell out some of the things to look for.

    Your points about why old style newspaper headlines just don’t work any more (no tagline, as well as the need for keywords for Google) hits home for me.
    Kirsten McCulloch recently posted..A Dream to Hold on to: Adapting Early for an Uncertain Future

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