How to Create a Killer Headline that Hooks Readers

DarrylBrooks by bennett tobias on Unsplash

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption. It’s possible that you are writing only for your own personal amusement or self-awareness. That’s called a diary. You don’t need to do that on a website or blogging platform. In fact, you probably don’t want to. Otherwise, eventually, somebody will read about how you did that thing with that other thing.

So, let’s assume you actually want people to read your stuff. I know I do. For me, it’s very gratifying to have a reader respond to an article of mine or share it on social media. Tracking hits or views is one thing, but having readers engage and respond to something I wrote is satisfying and what keeps me writing.

But first, they have to open the article.

And that’s where a killer headline comes in. If you’ve read much about how to attract readers, you already know that a headline is the most important element of your article. I know this is counter-intuitive for many writers to begin with. Especially you artsy types. You know the ones I’m talking about. I’ve written a masterpiece so people will flock to it.

Build it and they will come.

No. They won’t. Something has to attract them to begin with. You wouldn’t, just for the sake of argument, build a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield, would you? That would be stupid. Who would find it? You would need something to attract people to it.

Like a sign.

And it can’t be a boring sign like, “Baseball Field.” People would drive right past without stopping. Why? Because they already know what is in the cornfield. It would only attract people who, for some reason, want to watch baseball on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

But what if you put up a sign on the highway that said, “You won’t believe what is in this cornfield.” And under that you wrote, “And it’s not just corn.”

You have just written a killer headline and sub-title.

Now people are pulling off the highway to find out what is behind the corn. You have hooked them. Of course, once you have them hooked, you’ve got to keep them for a while.

But this isn’t about writing an article, it’s about writing your headline.

There are a ton of articles out there on how to write a good headline. Personally, I think about 75% of them are crap.

Mostly, this is because people are just copying what others have said. Write listicles. Don’t use clickbait (but really, use clickbait). Use a headline analyzer.

Let’s take a look at each of these suggestions. Listicles. Who likes them? I know I don’t. If I’m doing a web search and a bunch of titles like, “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Alpaca Farming,” pop up, I scroll on by. My favorites are the ones with massive numbers. Say, I want to buy a new refrigerator and I see something like, “The Best 900 Refrigerators.” Who will read that? People will quote a ton of statistics showing how popular listicles are and why you should write them. But ask yourself this, how often do you click on one?

Clickbait. People say don’t use clickbait and then they proceed to quote very clickbaity titles you should try. But what is a headline? It’s clickbait. The only purpose of a title is to bait readers into clicking on it. How is that not the only definition of clickbait? You need to use clickbait, but only in a certain way. I’ll get back to that in a minute. (See how I baited you into reading further? Don’t bother scanning down, I’ve hidden it in a cornfield.)

My personal favorite is the headline analyzer. I won’t lie to you, I use them as well. But only as a guideline. I used one when I was fiddling around with the title of this piece. But you won’t believe some of the crap that scored higher than the one I chose. It’s possibly good for trying out minor variations, but you should already have a good idea of your title before you go there.

They are more of a game than a tool. Don’t believe me? Bring up your favorite one, or use CoSchedule if you don’t have on. Start typing in nonsense, but use a lot of clickbaity words. Google a list of power words and sprinkle those in there. Shoot for a score of 100. My personal best is 93. Beat that, if you can.

But you can end up with a title that has people scratching their heads. What? What the hell does that mean? AI has come a long way, but it’s still, well, artificial. Use the tools to fine-tune or to explore unique ideas, but in the end, it’s your actual intelligence that will choose the proper headline.

There’s a lot of advice out there about SEO. I have been involved with SEO since my days as a webmaster 10 years ago. And it’s another game. You are trying to fool the search engines, primarily Google, into finding your stuff before it finds other people’s stuff. Except for the people that pay to have their stuff found. Google is constantly changing its algorithm so that you can’t figure out how to get your stuff found. Like I said, a game. More intelligence that is artificial.

And I don’t want to discount the value of SEO completely, especially if you are good at that all that mumbo-jumbo. People won’t read your article if they can’t find it. And SEO can help with that, but use it with discretion.

But eventually, most readers end up on a site like News Break, where they are scanning for stuff to read. And that is where your headline will make or break your article. So, instead of all that other advice, do this one simple trick. (Now, there’s a clickbait title) Go to your favorite blogging site and scan the articles. Click on the ones that interest you and open them in separate tabs.

Now, looking at each article individually, go back to the original list and compare that title to the ones on the same or similar subjects that you didn’t click on. What was different? Was there something about the title you opened that was more interesting than the others? Spend a few minutes every day doing this exercise, and you will learn more about writing good headlines than all that other hooey combined.

Next, take a look at every article you opened and read the first line or paragraph. I know I said this wasn’t about writing the article, but it’s a reciprocal relationship. The headline gets the article opened, but you have to hook the reader immediately. But more importantly, to the point of this article, the headline has to tie into the story and do so quickly.

This is where the clickbait comes in. As we’ve already established, whether or not the pundits like it, your title is clickbait. They took the bait and opened the article. That’s the purpose of the title. But here is where good clickbait and bad clickbait comes in. Your article, and in particular your opening, has to tie back into the title, or at least not be contradictory.

You can’t have the title, “37 of the Best Sex Toys,” and your opening paragraph be about alpaca farming.

But you also can’t immediately give away the whole punchline. Go back and look at my opening. It didn’t tie back into the title right away, but it led you further down the path. You’re still reading, aren’t you?

And therefore sometimes, I won’t write the title until I’ve finished the article. I may not know exactly what the right hook is until I know for sure where the story will end up. I will also frequently write a new opening after I’ve finished the article and chosen the headline to make sure I lead the reader from one to the other.

You can be the best writer in the world, but if your headline isn’t compelling nobody will read it. Rather than depend on tools and formulas, use your own experience and common sense to create headlines that hook readers and get them to your first sentence.

Then you can impress them with your writing.

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I am a writer with over 16 years of experience and hundreds of articles. I write about photography, productivity, life skills, money management and much more.

Alpharetta, GA

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