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The Practitioner Whisperer – Writing Exciting Titles

June 12, 2018 - Content Marketing, influencer content marketing - , , , , ,
By: Chris Tozzi

Titles are to blog posts what curb appeal is to a house. If you have a bad title, no one will read your content, no matter how good it is—just as no one is going to pay attention to your house (regardless of its interior beauty), if it looks ugly or bland from the street.

This is why writing exciting titles is so important. Without a good title, you might as well not have a blog post at all.

Of course, being exciting is not the only quality a title should have. It also needs to convey information clearly and succinctly.

Crafting titles that are exciting, clear and concise at the same time is hard work. But it’s work that we have been doing at Fixate for a long time. Below, we share what we’ve learned about the art and science of writing titles for blog posts and technical articles.

Why Writing Titles is So Hard

Let’s begin by explaining exactly why good titles are so hard to come by.

One is that you don’t get much room to work with when writing a title—especially for digital content. The rule of thumb is that your title shouldn’t exceed 70 characters, spaces included. If it does, you risk suffering SEO penalties because search engines will typically ignore words beyond the 70-character mark.

Plus, actual humans are usually not inclined to read a title if it’s too long—unless it’s really long, which can make it stand out to human readers, but not search engines. Writing excessively long titles can actually be a strategy if SEO doesn’t matter and you want to draw eyeballs to a particular post. In most cases, however, SEO does matter, and titles that exceed 70 characters are risky for that reason. The title of Samuel Penhallow’s book The History of the Wars of New-England with the Eastern Indians; Or, a Narrative of their Continued Perfidy and Cruelty, from the 10th of August, 1703, to the Peace Renewed 13th of July, 1713. And from the 25th of July, 1722, to their Submission 15th December, 1725, which was Ratified August 5th, 1726 might intrigue readers because of its impressive length, but search engines won’t be pleased by it.

Writing titles is also difficult because you want them to be descriptive, but not too descriptive. If a reader sees a title that summarizes the entire message of an article, she might decide not to read the article at all. For example, I’m not going to read the article “Trump Ousts Anthony Scaramucci as Communications Director at New Chief of Staff’s Request” because the title alone tells me everything I need to know: The president fired Scaramucci because his chief of staff asked him to. There’s a better chance that I’d read the article “John Kelly, Asserting Authority, Fires Anthony Scaramucci” because it doesn’t reveal the whole story; instead, it outlines what happened, but leaves me wondering what the president’s role in Scaramucci’s firing was, and what the significance of Kelly’s “asserting authority” might be.

On the other hand, you don’t want your titles to convey too little information. If they do, readers won’t have any idea what a post is about. Neither will search engines. A title like “Tesla’s New Car” is too light on description to draw a reader in or give search engines a sense of how to rank content.

It can be difficult, too, to strike the right balance between being engaging and sounding gimmicky when you write a title. Unless you’re in the business of producing clickbait, you want to avoid titles like “You Won’t Believe the Features in Apple’s New iPhone.” A title like that is over the top. Conversely, you also don’t want a title that is too plain and boring, like “Apple Introduces New Features with Latest iPhone.” Instead, you should aim to strike the right balance with a title like “Camera Updates and Facial Recognition Top New iPhone Feature List.”

Tips for Writing Good Titles

How do you overcome challenges like those described above? How can you write titles that are pithy, catchy and descriptive all at the same time?

Consider these tips:

  • Use subtitles. If you can’t say everything you need to in 70 characters, you can always use a subtitle to convey extra information. This can be handy in cases where you need to pack the main title with SEO-friendly words, but want to convey extra information for human readers.
  • Use multiple titles. A good CMS will allow you to write more than one title for a blog post, and display different titles depending on context. For instance, there’s a plugin for this on WordPress. Multiple titles can be useful if, for example, you want one title to appear when a bot crawls your site to index it, but a different title to display to human readers. There’s a reason why the New York Times gives different titles to the same stories when they are published in print and online. You can do the same thing, even if you’re not the New York Times.
  • Pithy words are your friend. When writing titles, short words that pack a lot of meaning into a few characters are your best friend. For example, if you’re writing about a new product that a company has issued, consider writing in your title that the product debuts rather than is released. Similarly, urges is better than recommends or encourages. Top beats leading or most popular. PC is better than computer, in the right context. And so on.
  • Avoid passive voice. Passive voice is bad not only because titles that are written using passive voice are poorly understood, but also because passive voice tends to suck up characters. It’s shorter, clearer and prettier to write “Trump Beats Clinton” than “Clinton is Defeated by Trump.”
  • Write titles as questions. Titles written full or partially as questions—such as “Did the first flower look like this?”—tend to save space while also drawing readers in.
  • Replace words with special characters. While you don’t want to be the person who replaces and with an ampersand or plus sign all of the time, tricks like this can help you out of a bind when you need to cut just a few characters from a title. In certain instances, special characters can even make your title catchier; for example, a title for an article targeted at programmers might include the characters !=, which programmers will recognize as coding shorthand for does not equal. Just keep in mind, of course, that search engines are not always capable of interpreting specialized characters like this.
  • Avoid ambiguous keywords. A title like “Container Storage Tips” is difficult for both human readers and SEO bots to interpret. Based on the title alone, readers have no idea whether we’re talking here about storage for Docker containers (the kind that deploy software applications) or shipping containers that are used to move goods across the ocean. In order to avoid drawing in the wrong readers or search engine traffic, make sure to avoid situations like these by making the context clear.
  • Avoid boring words. Words like have, do and go are simple and unengaging. They make for boring titles, just as they make for boring prose in almost any context. Whenever possible, choose more interesting words that convey a more specific meaning, such as own, perform or travel.
  • Make clear what type of content the title is for. In some contexts, readers may be unsure whether the title they see is for a blog post, video, slideshow, or something else. Help them by adding this information to the title. You can do this using a bland label, as in “Video: Mark Shuttleworth Talks Future of Ubuntu,” or in a more exciting fashion, e.g., “Watch this Video to Learn about Ubuntu’s Future from Mark Shuttleworth.”
  • Know your audience. It almost (but not quite) goes without saying that the tone and style of your headlines should be tailored for your target audience. If your article will appear on a formal corporate blog, the title should be direct and straightforward. It should avoid addressing readers as you, for instance. But if your content is going to appear on a community blog about celebrity news, it’s probably OK for the language to be more personal and familiar.

There you have it: Fixate’s ultimate guide to writing great titles for blog posts and technical articles.

We can’t say that we never struggle to craft the perfect title, but we’ve been writing titles for years as part of the content production and editing services we provide to our clients. If there were titles for people who write titles, we believe we’d deserve the title of Master Titlers.


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Chris Tozzi has worked as a journalist and Linux systems administrator. He has particular interests in open source, agile infrastructure and networking. He is Senior Editor of content and a DevOps Analyst at Fixate IO.

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