I couldn’t stop chuckling as I read The Times public editor’s commentary on the erosion of the fine art of headline writing. So what’s your pleasure — title for shock, for amusement, for clarity, for searchability… and more?
In Hey Google! Check Out This Column on Headlines, I was reminded of a recent conversation that took place in my professional life.
I was told I had forgotten my verb in a headline — an online headline.
Shame on me. Except…
Truth be told, when the other party to the conversation remarked on the fundamental necessity of the verb — and I am a fan of this particular part of speech; verbs are so deliciously virile — I realized that she doesn’t live online to the same (crazy obsessive 24/7) extent that I do and that so many of you, like me, consider “normal.”
While I wasn’t crafting copy on sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll (or anything else with “native” sizzle), I did need to capture the attention of my business audience with a hook, and also to manage to optimize my content. A verb wasn’t required; its absence would have been online headlining Business As Usual.
As it happens, I added a verb to please the person who mentioned it and All Was Fine.
The “Essentials” in Headlines
Point of fact, it is perfectly acceptable to write headlines sans verb. A verb can be implied; what is critical is to convey the main point of your content — ideally in a way that is fresh, entertaining, and will stand out.
In the same opinion section of the venerable Times is a column titled “Ancient Laws, Modern Problems.”
Hmmm. Applicable to this discussion perhaps?
Indeed, old rules have relaxed when it comes to journalistic form, or rather, the form itself is evolving. Our searches, texts, tweets and other abbreviated communications have crept into — or perhaps been invited into — more formalized frameworks for language. Not only is there no verb in “Ancient Laws, Modern Problems” but it reminds us that old rules and guidelines may not fit contemporary issues and needs.
Optimizing Headlines for Search and Shares
More importantly, as the public editor mentions relative to The Times, “searchability” and “shareability” factor into our titling now, which diminishes the likelihood of the “lyrical” headline or for that matter, the cleverest one.
More’s the pity, though I know my own less than award-winning headlines here run the gamut from intended to amuse me, intended to amuse you, ‘just get it done, dammit’ to those all-critical Google (search) and social (share) factors.
Poetic parsing? Raucous rhyming? Ambitious alliteration?
Now and then, those suit, too.
If you ask me, what doesn’t suit is repeated bait-and-switch or gross inaccuracy.
Do You Have a Headline Style?
As The Times continues, their remarks on the growing complexity of headlines exemplifies just one of many challenges for online publishers of all sorts and sizes.
Citing Patrick LaForge on the subject, the man who supervises 100+ copyeditors tasked with headlines (presumably among other activities):
The guiding principle is to match the appropriate style of headline to the platform — print, website, mobile, search engines or social media.
The bottom line for me is this: Stick to the standards that suit you and apply then consistently.
What else should you apply?
Try this: gracious acceptance of those who may see things differently. This is not a matter of lowering the proverbial bar nor looking the other way, but rather an acute awareness that doing things differently does not equate to doing them wrong.
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