We all know – to the extent that it’s a little cliché now – that content is king. Every single word you write in your blog post, press release or e-mail can have an impact on the person reading it. From the opening sentence to the closing paragraph, get it right and you’ll see people doing exactly what it is you want them to do. Get it wrong, however and you’ll essentially have wasted what could have easily been hours.
One of the things I’ve learnt over the years is that it’s often the little changes that have the most impact. Reading and re-reading sentences to take out any words that aren’t necessary and which therefore make the piece longer to read. Using a full stop instead of a comma to break a paragraph up and improve the readability of it. Even something like taking out a full sentence can have a huge benefit – it might fit in with the piece and not disrupt the flow, but does it actually offer any value?
And as freelance writers, we’re getting better and better at this all the time. Just take a look at a piece you wrote a few years ago – or even just a few months ago if you’re only starting out. See the difference?
But unfortunately, there’s one area of writing that so many are still failing to nail. And that’s the titles.
It doesn’t matter what type of content you’re writing, the first thing your audience are going to see is the title and if it doesn’t get their attention, the majority of people aren’t going to want to continue reading. It really is as simple as that.
Why so many don’t spend time on titles I honestly don’t know. I think part of it is we can undervalue them, but I also think we can often feel we’ve got them down to a tee anyway, so we don’t have to worry about them.
But how good do you actually think you are at writing titles? I have a huge amount of respect for all freelance writers, regardless of whether they’ve been writing for one hour or one decade, but I do feel that the majority – or at least a large proportion – don’t have the handle on writing titles they should do to see the success they need.
Now I’m not saying I’m perfect at writing titles, but I like to think the time I’ve spent trying to understand what works best hasn’t been in vain and there are a few key points that I always follow and / or keep in mind when writing titles.
- Don’t try and write the perfect title straight away – understand the main focus of your piece and write something related to it as a basic title. Tweak it a little and then start writing your piece, going back to the title as and when you think of a possible change. What you’ll find is that by the time you’ve written the piece, you’ve got a title that reflects the content perfectly.
- Think about what your audience are going to be searching for – questions can work particularly well as titles, so get in your audience’s shoes and try and work out what it is they’d be asking – and typing into the search engines – where your content would be of most use if they saw it. What’s more, a question in the title can conjure up the interest of the reader – they’ve read the question, have an answer and want to find out more to see if there’s is the same as yours.
- Informative-style pieces work fantastically – simply put, if you can work your title into a style such as ’7 Steps To…’, ’5 Ways To…’ or just ‘How To…’, you can pretty much guarantee a great click-through rate. We like to read pieces that tell us something or help us achieve something and if we can get a good idea of what that is going to be from the title, we know the piece is going to be for us and so we are more than happy to click through to find out more.
- Be unique – take inspiration from others and write a title similar to what they’ve done, but whatever you do, don’t write something that’s been seen hundreds of times before. Even if it’s in one of the styles mentioned above, you need to give your readers a reason to click through and a title they’ve seen before isn’t going to do that.
- Keep it short – no one likes to read a title that’s two dozen words long. Aside from anything, it feels awkward. A title should be relatively short and straight to the point. The best way to think of it is if it could do with a comma in there somewhere when reading it out loud, it’s too long.
- Relevancy is key – if there’s one thing I hate about ‘bad’ titles, it’s when they have little obvious relevance to the content. Sure, you might seem like you’re being cool and funny, but titles aren’t the best places to be anything other than direct and straight to the point. Leave any witty comments until you’re certain your reader will get them.
As I said, I’m not perfect at writing titles, but since I’ve started to understand them, I haven’t had any major catastrophes. There’ll no doubt be times when you’ve had titles that buck the trend of what should work and other instances where an apparently perfect title flopped, but that’s just the nature of your audience. These things happen sometimes.
The most important point to note is that the title of any piece needs more time spent on it than you’re probably doing at the moment. I’ll be honest and say that a lot of the journey to working out what works is trial and error as every industry and audience is different, but by sticking to the points above, I’ve managed to get a good, basic structure in place that I can follow when creating a title for any piece I’m writing.