A list to help you write better questions

A post I wrote for Poynter Online:

If you need any proof about the power of headlines, consider this: what do you imagine drew the majority of people to this post? Chances are that you and others made the decision to click here after coming across the headline. So I’m not going to dwell on why headlines are important.

Instead, I want to give you a checklist, a quick heuristic diagnostic you can refer to anytime you want to make your headlines sing. Print out the list if you’d like, put it by your desk. But I recommend putting every headline you write through this gamut of questions until they become second nature.

Read the full post at Poynter.org.

Piping fresh Nick Denton memo

Get it while it’s hot. You know I can’t resist Denton’s monthly memo to his Gawker staff bloggers. A highlight:

Kevin Purdy’s highly informative story about the effects of caffeine on the brain in Lifehacker was the breakout story of July. And the reader interest in the piece highlights — do we really need a reminder? — the draw of the explanation. There’s too much news on the web; and way too little explanation. Fully a quarter of the top stories are straight how-tos or otherwise helpful or informative.

Man. I would never have thought Nick Denton would be one of the loudest voices making my beloved Future of Context argument.

Are Web headlines just a cruel algorithm game?

In light of my “Headlines are hooks” post from last week, I’d be remiss not to flag this thoughtful David Carr column on Web headlines. He worries that the Web is making obsolete some of the artfulness that’s characterized headlines in the past:

When I scan my list of aggregated articles in an RSS feed, looking for information that I seem to need to know right now, I am ruthless: the obscure, the off-beat, the mysterious, frequently go unclicked.

But it leads to a sameness that can make all the information seem as if it were generated by the same traffic-loving robot. On Friday, two headlines from Reuters and Silicon Alley Insider about Google Street View camera cars that were unintentionally collecting data from unsecured wireless connections showed up two minutes apart in my RSS feed. Both started with “Whoops!” Whoops.

I agree with Jim Brady’s take on the question:

“We reject the idea that there are only two options, between a really creative and a boring headline. There is a lot of sunlight between those two options,” said Jim Brady, general manager of Politico’s coming local Washington site called TBD.com. “The headlines don’t have to be boring, but they have to be descriptive and direct so that they show up in mobile and RSS feeds in a way that lets people know what they are being asked to click on.”

Dark secret of blogging #3: Headlines are hooks

(Flickr photo courtesy of user minifig.)

Just admit you read the title of this post and thought, “Duh.” Of course headlines are hooks. That’s News 101.

OK, fine, but headline-writing for the Web is enough of a distinct art that it must be re-emphasized: Great bloggers write great headlines. And that should be qualified: great bloggers write great Web headlines.

What distinguishes a good Web headline? Here’s an insight from Gawker mogul Nick Denton: “Imagine you’re writing a headline for a magazine (one with tight deadlines) rather than a newspaper.”

What does that mean? I think that the most successful Web headlines emphasize implications rather than events. Not what happened, but what it means. Take this headline from Wired.com: “Group posts e-mail hacked from Palin account.” Compare it to the headline from Gawker: “Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails.” The former headline focuses on the event – Sarah Palin’s e-mails got hacked. Gawker underscores the consequence – you get to read Sarah Palin’s e-mail!

Another example. Here’s a NYTimes headline: “Population study finds change in the suburbs.” Did your eyes just glaze over? Sweet, mine too. Someone studied the suburbs and found they’d changed, news at 11. The AP headline’s better: “White flight? Suburbs lose young whites to cities.” I expect the tinge of racial conflict in that title might draw a few clicks, although I wouldn’t recommend setting up a discussion that way. But once again, Gawker demonstrates mastery – “Suburbs: the new slums.” The rough trajectory of these headlines goes: What happened (NYTimes), what’s happening (AP), what it could mean (Gawker). That last version is what grabs our attention best online.

I once saw a marketing guru highlight what he thought were the top 12 most profit-producing words in marketing. I think you could do a similar exercise for great headline words. Here’s a quick take on it:

  1. Top
  2. Why
  3. How
  4. Will
  5. Guide
  6. Best
  7. Secret
  8. Ultimate
  9. Your
  10. Worst
  11. New
  12. Future

If you can frame your post with one (or more) of these words, you might just have a winner. Of course, you can write a terrific, viral headline with none of these words. Read Denton’s memo for some more thoughts on the matter.

Dark secret of blogging #2: Numbering is narrative.

Take a moment to peruse PopURLs – one of my favorite snapshots of the Internet zeitgeist – and you’ll notice a recurring pattern – people love lists. The words “top 10″ or “5 best” or “3 most” just seem to hit some sort of primal switch in our brains, triggering us to devour and redistribute content.

Obviously the Web didn’t invent the top-10 list, but the popularity of this story form in this medium is definitely worth some rumination. First, however, one key point – a numbered list is a story form. It’s a way of shaping a narrative that has just as much legitimacy as a Q&A, a long-form feature, an inverted pyramid, or any other storytelling technique a writer might draw on.

I tend to think the most important thing to understand about the popularity of lists online is not that every blog post should be a list, but that lists reveal some of the implicit attributes of successful Web content that are worth keeping in mind no matter which story form you choose. To wit:

Lists promise comprehensiveness.

A top 10 countdown suggests that you’ve surveyed a wide territory and brought back its 10 most sparkling gems. When we read things, we don’t typically quantify how many discrete insights we expect to encounter. We might even approach information expecting a point – a single golden takeaway to be treasured and put to use. Given this expectation, 10 promised insights (!) seems extraordinarily generous.

Lists promise limits.

At the same time as lists suggest breadth and robustness, they also convey selection. You aren’t just dumping everything on us, you’ve winnowed it down to 10 elements or 6 or even 3. The subtle message: “This is all you need to know.” In the age of information overload, that’s a huge selling point.

Lists promise hierarchy.

The Web loves hierarchy. Our information diets are glutted with streams of info all given equal weight – emails and status updates and articles and links. In that environment, information given a clear, unequivocal, easy-to-parse structure stands out. You can read a list from beginning to end, or if you’re pressed for time, just savor the best bits. What’s not to love?

Lists connote authority.

To assert the selection of a top 10 is to assert ownership of a topic. On the Web, content lends authority as often as brand. A complete unknown with a top-10 list that rings true to its audience can command as much attention as an established expert in a field. (I see this as both a good thing and a bad thing.) But it means that lists are an efficient signal that you think you’ve got enough experience on a topic to condense it.

A numbered list isn’t the only way to send these signals, of course. Other popular story forms online exude many of these same attributes. For example, the “ultimate guide to everything you need to know about X” is another format that promises authority and completeness, and you’ll find these posts are very popular as well. If you can grok why these formats are so Web-friendly, you can tailor your stories and headlines to match the sensibility.