You’ve been writing headlines wrong this whole time! (and other lazy titles)

You've been doing it wrong...

I’ve noticed a rather odd trend in journalism – titles of articles are getting more and more formulaic. What do I mean by that? Well, let me try and explain.

Do you follow any news websites, lifestyle sites or online magazines on social media (and I’m really talking about Twitter more than anything here)? If you do, have you noticed that the tweets and titles relating to news articles are getting…well…very samey? The topic may be different, but the wording of the title seems curiously familiar.

In fact, in many cases, the wording of the title is practically identical to a similar story you might have read the week before.

You, personally, have been doing EVERYTHING wrong!

Let me give you a more specific example of this slightly bizarre trend. Here are three random articles from three different sites…notice anything about the titles?

You’ve been using tomato ketchup wrong your whole life

You’ve been doing the moonwalk wrong all this time

You’ve been tying your shoes wrong all this time

Yeah, they’re all a bit similar, aren’t they. The actual central topic is different, but the only thing that’s different is the object in the sentence. It’s almost like someone had a template and just plonked a new topic into an existing title, isn’t it…which is almost certainly what they did.

Worryingly, there are now whole sites and online tools dedicated to cooking up blog titles, news titles and content for tweets etc. – without you, the journo or content writer, having to actually engage your grey matter at all.

Grabbing your attention

We live in a world where SEO (search engine optimisation) is king, and where people’s attention spans are (allegedly) incredibly short. So the worlds of journalism, social media and digital content seem to have decided that the only way to grab our attention is to couch news in a way that metaphorically slaps you around the face – without ever crediting us with the ability to make our own decisions about what IS and what ISN’T attention grabbing.

To start with, the title’s in the second person – you (yes, YOU, personally!) have been doing this thing wrong! All your life! OMG!

That’s the first attention grabber.

And what’s more you, you’re just NOT on trend at all. How are you gonna get through life knowing that you’ve been using tomato ketchup wrongly!? I mean, you might as well just end the social embarrassment now and go and live on a remote island somewhere with no wi-fi and no ability to interact with the rest of humanity. Gawd!

That’s the second attention grabber – you’re the odd one out, fella! Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knows how to use ketchup right…other than you, you no-hoper!

And none of us like to think we’re out of step with society, do we. So we click the link, we read the article and we think….actually, this article is complete rubbish.

Let’s ditch the formulas

This is one particular example. But there are plenty of others

‘You won’t believe what happens next….’ is another favourite. ‘You won’t believe what happens next in this SHOCKING video’. Usually, what happens next is neither shocking or unbelievable – it’s usually some Z-list celebrity having a spat with their current bae. Or an unfortunate sportsperson tripping and falling on their arse.

‘What’s the secret of….’ is also a common one that crops up. ‘What’s the secret of writing dull headlines’. If you ask me, that’s a pretty simple one – using a formula to create your titles. It might seem good for your SEO, in theory, but is it actually an interesting or unique title? If you use a formula, it’s pretty damned unlikely it will be either.

As I’m fond of saying to lovers of SEO-friendly content, the best search engine is the one between the ears – the human mind. We spot jaded, formulaic, uninteresting content a mile off. What actually grabs our attention, usually, is a title that is genuinely interesting. And one that doesn’t sound like you’ve read it 20 times before.

So, sub-editors, social media writers and lifestyle journalists; a plea to you. Can you start using that thing between your ears and writing your own, unique headlines, please. It might take you a little longer and it might piss off your stat-loving SEO specialist. But I think the end result will be something a lot more engaging, interesting and readable – and that immediately makes your title more clickable (which, ultimately, is the point, no?).

So, yes, you HAVE been writing your headlines wrong this whole time!

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