Writing Headlines: Tell Readers Something Useful

If you write article titles, be clear, not cute.

Every journal that I work with has declared the “online version is the journal of record.” But some still seem to write for print, not for online, when they write article titles that work in print, but don’t work in the nearly-context-free online places that headlines appear.

Article titles are “headlines”, and headline-writers sometimes get clever with plays on words.   I remember in graduate school (I was in English Literature) thinking that every dissertation title had to have some too-clever play on words to pique interest, followed by a colon, followed by something that actually communicated meaning and intent.   Something like this:

Dangerous Grounds: Coffee Farming During the Civil War

This will work as long as the clear part after the colon never gets separated from the cute part, by some errant software, or just truncated in the small spaces of a cell phone or a sidebar.

We admire cleverness in the names of TV shows, book titles and boutique stores. But in the scholarly-publishing world of too-much-to-read, where we let search criteria, search engine result pages, and email tables of contents be our main decision point on what to read, we need to be clear, not cute; tell, not tease.

Journals today are including more and more “front matter” and editorials in their publishing, and need to have headline editors pay attention to the online context. Actually, it is the lack of context that is the challenge. Think about the places that headlines appear:

  • Google and Google Scholar search results
  • Online tables of contents
  • Email tables of contents
  • Mobile phone small screens
  • “Right rail” sidebars in journal-article pages
  • RSS feeds, and feed readers
  • In the Window Title of your web browser

None of these are going to carry along the context that appears on the printed page.

And sometimes our search criteria might prioritize words in a title, and the clever titles will not win that race to the top of the result page. This can particularly be a problem when we scan a result page looking only at the first two or three words in each result item: those words had better be signal, not noise.

When HighWire interviewed researchers asking what would help them work faster to take in the literature, one of the top suggestions was “better article titles.” The suggestion was that article titles should be more like declarative sentences than the “click bait” we see on a lot of blogs. (You’ve seen click bait all around: “The Three Reasons Your Spouse Is Going to Divorce You” or “911 Center Has Bed Bugs: Who do they Call?” That second one is not made up.)

A great blog post appeared recently from The Nolan Norton Group – they do superb evidence-based usability studies – reminding us of their “5 Tips for Writing Headlines that Convert” browsers to readers.   I recommend it as a refresher for those who write headlines, whether for the occasional editorial, a news piece, press releases or blog posts (yes, I did think more than twice about the headline for this post; several cute versions got the ax).

Latest news and blog articles