Blogging: 10 Things To Do with A Bad Headline

I thought it was one of my better posts ever on Huffington, A Great Debate About Ideas, because it covered something really important — the battle of free vs. not — and tied Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, and Ellen Goodman together.

But it wasn’t, it turns out, because of a dull deadline. Maybe I should have called it “The Battle of Free vs. Not.” Hmm, no, see, I’m not that good at headlines. “Naked idea orgy?”

  1. Delete it
  2. Start over
  3. Make it a list of 10
  4. Make it a list of 5
  5. Insult somebody famous
  6. Find a way to add one or more of the words “naked, brutal, violent, sexy, stripped, revealed, angry, face-off” … or something like that.
  7. Blame it on the readers, the editors, or anybody else you can think of.
  8. Take a walk, and think about a single sentence that would make you want to read the rest of the post.
  9. Go browse a blog reader like Google reader set to show just headlines.
  10. Go back to point 1 and go right down this list again.

True story: when I was young, working with UPI in Mexico City — we’re talking about early 1970s, so seriously, a long time ago — the system we used to report Mexico news to New York Editors showed them the first sentence only; from that, they had to decide whether or not they wanted to see the whole first paragraph. And, with that, they had to decide again (push a button) whether they wanted to see the rest of the story. So I should be able to do this.

And something else, that I’ve learned, in a lot of years writing: there are many different varieties of writing. Being good at one doesn’t mean you’re good at another. I used to think I was a good writer, but copy writers amaze me. And in newspapers, reporters don’t write the headlines. And writing and creative fiction plots are totally different skills.

Damn headlines.


  • On Twitter, A/B Analysis, and the Art of Headlines says:

    […] Headlines are critical. I’ve noted that, with some frustration (I’m not so good at headlines) on this blog before, here. […]

  • Gisli says:

    Writing headlines is like Haiku: terse, colorful, bold. Talk to the inner child, the guts
    If you write the whole article in headline-speak you better call it a “poem”.
    Writing articles is a different things for different people. For me its structured, orderly, logical. I do technical documentation. But I enjoy reading motoring/sports/food journalism for the way the writers handle excitement. Don’t get much of that in a technical specification for a network protocol.

  • ALex says:

    Thanks so much Tim! Great post. Not only did it have sprinkles of humor, the tips are all applicable to various types of articles.

  • Tim Berry says:

    There, see? Headlines are so tough, but so important, and it takes talent. To Free or Not to Free would have been way better. Thanks Steve!

  • Steve says:

    Headlines are hard. It is really rare when a publication uses my headline – they almost always change it. And I know from feedback that my blog post headlines are not good.

    I’ve been getting headline advice from a friend who is a newspaper editor, but I don’t seem to be getting any better.

    BTW, I liked your post on Ideas. Interesting mix of opinions and sources. How about “To Free or Not to Free?”

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