My least favorite part of writing: Coming up with a headline

I wrote the headline for this post on Twitter a few hours ago, after having racked my brain to come up with the four headlines required for each SEED column I write.

Actually, I only ever manage to write two of them. My editor comes up with the other two, in addition to editing mine. Why are there four headlines? I’m not sure — that’s just how SEED rolls. But even if I only have to come up with one, as I’ve done for the hundreds of CogDaily posts I’ve written, I don’t like it. In fact, ScienceBlogs wants me to come up with two headlines for those as well — a “headline” and an “excerpt,” which appears below the headline on the ScienceBlogs home page. I never bother with the excerpt, so the software automatically inserts the first 15 words or so of my post, which may or may not help a reader decide whether to click through to read the whole thing.

After tweeting about my headline-writing frustration, I got about a half-dozen replies and retweets, which for me on Twitter is practically an avalanche. Noah Gray (@noahWG), who’s an editor for Nature, said “You’re kidding right? That’s all Twitter trains you to do!!!” I replied that I didn’t think so. In fact, I think of a tweet as a mini-article with no headline.

Then I thought about it a little more and realized that my least favorite kind of tweet really is more like a headline: It’s the tweet you make when you’re pimping your own writing. Just like a headline, the tweet becomes a sales pitch: “Read this article. Please. And click on some of the surrounding ads while you’re at it. Also, believe that I’m an intelligent, thoughtful person. Invest some of your intellectual capital in me. Aren’t I swell?”

Bleh. I hate that stuff.

But why do I hate it? It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of a headline. Tens of thousands of people see the headlines for each post I write, but only a fraction of those people actually click through to read the post itself. The better the headline, the more clicks I get, and the more I get paid. Heck, the headline is probably more important than the article itself.

Not only that, but in this age of search engines, a well-crafted headline can draw even more page views based on how many people search for the words in your headline. Write a headline that captures the current internet buzz, and you could get hundreds of thousands of hits.

And think about this: Often when your story gets posted onto Digg or Reddit, the poster doesn’t bother to change your original headline. If your story is going to get the tsunami of traffic that a listing on the homepage of one of those sites brings, it will to be on the strength of the headline you write. Ditto Stumbleupon, Facebook, and, yes, Twitter.

I realize, too, that most people understand that a headline is basically a sales pitch. It’s not beneath a writer’s dignity to put her story in the best possible light. It’s expected. A perfectly-phrased headline isn’t like a salesman sticking his foot in your door, it’s more like a really great movie trailer, exciting and inspiring you but not giving away too much. Just as I like a good movie trailer, I love to read a great headline.

But particularly for science writers, there’s also a responsibility involved in headline writing. “Do vaccines cause autism?” might draw more clicks than “No evidence that vaccines cause autism,” but since many more people read the headline itself than read the article, it’s irresponsible to run a misleading headline. Even if your article debunks the antivax hysteria, a headline like that would probably do more to perpetuate the myth than not running the story at all.

A headline, especially for a science writer, must always balance the need to adequately promote the work with the need to accurately portray it. Meeting that second goal might actually mean less success for the science writer.

For me, the act of writing a headline is a near-daily reminder of this dilemma. And that’s what makes coming up with a headline my least favorite part of the writing process.

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One Response to My least favorite part of writing: Coming up with a headline

  1. Jackie says:

    At ZDE I work our writers to help them make more search engine friendly headlines. The key is to find 1-3 keywords that are frequently searched and 1-3 keywords that are targeted to the topic of your article. Use the Google Keyword Suggestion tool and Google Trends to get an idea of a keyword’s popularity. Then use Google Analytics to track how you’re doing and which keywords are bringing traffic.

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