The Art of Titles: 6 Lessons on Style
I just clicked on an article entitled: “Our Average Attention Span is Now Shorter Than Goldfish.” Sure, it’s hyperbole. The headline also doesn’t make perfect sense, at least not grammatically—Do we measure our attention spans in goldfish lengths? But none of this stopped me from clicking. Who could pass on a headline like that?
We began this series on web editing by describing the model we use here at DashBurst. This post, our second, will discuss titles. The reason why good titles matter is obvious: If we want people to read our posts, we first need them to click on our headlines.
By the way, that article on attention spans claimed that on average you and I can stay focused for all of eight seconds… And it blamed the internet.
Easier Said Than Done
We have a “blogging guide” that we use in-house. It says about titles, “You know the deal— catchy short titles to draw people into reading more.” That’s great advice, but easier said than done.
These six lessons offer specific ways of crafting and editing short, catchy titles.
Be forewarned, however: we could offer 100 tips on titles. This post doesn’t touch on SEO optimization, for example, or why sites like BuzzFeed use so many questions and numbers in their titles. But you can read about most of that elsewhere on the Web. Here we offer tips on style.
Are you still with me?
One trick to writing catchy titles: Start with an action verb. To better understand this, compare the two titles below. The first was the draft; the second, the final.
- What it Feels Like Flying Down the Side of a Mountain Like Pro Snowboarder Jamie Anderson
- Fly Down a Mountainside with Pro Snowboarder Jamie Anderson
The difference speaks for itself, right?
Shout, “Goldfish!” from the rooftops.
Trick number two: Front-load the most interesting language or information. If you do that, a title like:
- What Does it Look Like From Space When the Sunrises Meets the Northern Lights?
Sunrise, Meet the Northern Lights: a One-of-a-Kind View from Space
Average attention spans might last eight seconds, but ask readers to endure a string of boring words at the start of a title and, well, they’re liable to make like gnats and drift off.
Intriguing vs. informational
A lot of titles tell you exactly what to expect in the article itself. The problem with titles like these is that they don’t leave anything to the imagination. They often don’t give readers much reason to click the headline and read the article.
- Cute Illustrations of ‘Super Families’ from Popular TV Shows, Movies, Video Games and Comics.
It’s not the worst title, but, unless I’m super interested in superheroes, I’m not interested in seeing them as parents. This title conveys information but doesn’t intrigue the reader.
Here’s the revision, which hopefully offers a bit more surprise:
- Batman Takes His Sons to School: Cute Illustrations of ‘Super Families’
Write-ups frequently borrow the name of the featured photo series or video. That often works fine. A DashBurst writer did that here:
- ‘Those Banana Republics’: Combining Country Names with Food Names.
But this title feels like it over-explains.
We changed it to:
- Cubacumber, Moroccoli, Papaya New Guinea: Welcome to ‘Those Banana Republics’
A much more intriguing title.
While we’re discussing ways of catching the reader’s attention, let me point out some awesome titles that required no editing:
- They’re Back, Pitches: the Official Trailer for ‘Pitch Perfect 2′ Has Been Released
- The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Lady Gaga: Singer’s ‘Sound of Music’ Oscar Performance Wows
- ‘If They Find It, They’ll Play With It:’ Clever Ad Campaigns Use Tampons and Condoms to Advocate Gun Safety
Word play! Humor! Taboos!
Re-Arrange Parts of Speech
Remember: We have the attention span of goldfish, which means you want to use as few words as possible without sacrificing a title’s appeal.
So, would you read an article entitled: “Fly Across Hong Kong in 2 Minutes in this First-Person Footage of a Drone Delivering a Candy Bar from One End of the City to Another”? Probably not, because it took you nearly two minutes just to read the headline.
To shorten a title, you can often cut the least interesting information or, like we did in the example below, rearrange its elements:
- Fashion Week or Photoshop? Jimmy Kimmel Quizzes Audience on Which NY Fashion Week Outfits Are Real and Fake
- Fashion Week or Photoshop? Jimmy Kimmel Quizzes Audience on Real Vs. Fake NY Fashion Week Outfits
In English, the same word can often function as a noun, adjective or verb. Tack on ly and there’s a good chance you’ve got an adverb. Take advantage of this flexibility to shorten your titles.
To shorten other titles, look for redundancy.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to the two-minute long title. Notice how the meanings of different words and phrases overlap. We have Hong Kong and city. We know Hong Kong is a city, so “city” is redundant. The same is true for across and from one end to another.
By editing for redundancy, you can shorten the title by eight words, arriving at:
- Fly Across Hong Kong in 2 Minutes in this First-Person Footage of a Drone Delivering a Candy Bar
You might cut even more since it stands to reason that a camera attached to a drone would necessarily capture first-person footage.
- Fly Across Hong Kong in 2 Minutes with a Drone Delivering a Candy Bar [VIDEO]
Editing for redundancy is perhaps the single most useful trick. Redundancy wastes time. And readers, no matter their attention spans, value their time.
Because this trick takes some practice, here are several draft and revised titles.
- Soar Down Mount Kilimanjaro with the First Man Ever to Take a Wingsuit Flight Down 20,000 Feet
- Soar down Mt. Kilimanjaro with the First Man Ever to Descend 20,000 Feet in a Wingsuit
- Levitating Through Life: Dancer Appears to Float in Pictures for His Self-Portrait Photo Project
- Levitating Through Life: Dancer Appears to Float in His Self-Portrait Photo Project
And a third:
- Flying Over Frozen Falls: Drone Footage Captures Aerial View of an Icy Niagara Falls
- Flying Over Frozen Falls: Drone Captures Views of Icy Niagara
Here, we know a drone captures footage from above, so we don’t need both over and aerial. At the same time, we have Frozen Falls and Niagara Falls. Plus, footage and views.
Is it just me, or is it gratifying to cut, cut, cut?
The rules of capitalization vary from publication to publication—most important is consistency.
The DashBurst style guide says to capitalize nouns, pronouns, possessive pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, but not articles, conjunctions, or prepositions.
The problem is that even professional writers might struggle to identify these parts of speech. I taught writing for years, yet this type of analysis still eats up my time. (A word like “that” can be a pronoun, adjective, adverb or conjunction. “To” is another tricky one.)
At DashBurst, the writers come and go with some frequency (Greener pastures?). And we all work fast. In the end, we’ve found it easier to rely on a website—titlecase.com—to parse our titles. It’s not perfect. It makes the same mistakes that human beings make. But, as a first step, it saves us time.
If, thanks to some miracle or Adderall, you’ve made it to the bottom of this post, congrats! I estimate it took you nine minutes, which means you have nearly the attention span of a Buddhist monk.
Good luck with your titles and check back in a couple weeks for our next installment!