4 min read
HOW TO WRITE A BETTER HEADLINE
THAN THIS PIECE OF SHIT: PART ONE
The lessons that follow I learned the hard way — so you, dear reader, don’t suffer the same fate.
BAIT THE HOOK
Without mentors like Bob McKee, Mark Swanson, and Dave Bour, I’d have very little to say on this topic (or any other). So thanks, fellas. Mean it.
I fibbed a little earlier. Words aren't actually hard.
Your entire screenplay, campaign, beat or novel runs on one good idea. Not any number of words, but one solid idea; one theme.
But great themes are hard to nail. A lot’s at stake. Because there’s no way your print ad, breaking story or think-piece survives the wild without an extremely provocative sentence at the top. Plus, every member of “the wild” actively wants to avoid your lame distraction, so it takes one hell of a collision to jar something loose.
Writers are in the epiphany business. Our job is not to write; it’s to provoke. We draw the first three-quarters of the circle and readers cognitively close the loop.
Measured doesn't mean mattered.
This might sound like a complex issue but it's not. Analytics are for the short-game, the immediate sale. They don't account for the passage of time and they don't look forward. They tell you what worked at that instant. Instead of worrying about capitalizing on every instant, play the long-game.
Analysis should provide answers. But the thing about answers is, for them to work they gotta be the truth. The "truth" doesn't just mean what they said was true — it means they told the truth.
Telling the truth is not reporting the facts. Telling the truth is revealing the secret to why it happened. It’s about coming clean, not reporting.
Analytics are facts. How many movies about facts have you bought tickets for?
All writing is fiction.
There are a million true things you could report about any scene and a trillion angles from which you could tell the story. Facts are merely an outline; truth fills in the color.
The truth is always someone's secret. The truth explains why something happened, not how or what.
Forrest Gump is the truth. Weather Channel reports are true. Journalism is a mix of both.
Create an “Aha!” moment and ring the bell.
Choose language and phrases that ask a fascinating question the reader hadn’t considered, then provide an answer they didn’t expect.
If that sounds like crazy sorcery, let’s dissect a live one. I wrote the following for the U.S. Army in Sept. 2016:
Thought leadership happens in that order.
(implied) question: what’s real leadership?
(unexpected) answer: thinking the hardest.
I like this line a lot — it passed my test, but hit a snag in the Land of Clients and didn’t end up seeing daylight (’til now, suckers!). But while we’re here, I should mention that this happens more often than it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s for a terrible reason, other times it’s not even for a reason.
In this case, the Lt. Colonel liked the language but said the idea contradicts the Army's tenets. They teach leadership is a behavior that always precedes thought, and leaders are those with the behavioral discipline to control their thoughts and reactions.
Such an incredible answer. Sure, he said no — whatever, doesn't matter at all. Happens every day. And he was right.
More importantly, he gave incredibly valuable information about the foundational guiding philosophies driving the most powerful organization in the history of planet earth — who is a client, too. I'm betting this information, which most people risk life and limb to learn, can be mined for some sort of value. Don't you?
I could've fought for my line, instead. I could've complained that the science is firmly on my side, and I could try to “win” the argument. But there’s no prize for winning — you’re trying to persuade. The most persuasive thing an artist can do after receiving negative feedback is to take the baton and sprint full speed ahead.
Because you didn’t do it for them. You did it for it. Right? Even if you manage to win the battle, it's not worth the casualties.
(That’s why I’m definitely not keeping track of every client I ever disagree with in a hidden word doc I named “2003 Taxes”)
Pretend like you embrace rewrites. Big picture, they’re always good. You get to have another idea and keep the old one since nobody wanted it. File that beast in the cabinet and come back to it.
You can tell exactly how good an idea (headline) is by how well it holds up once you rewrite it. Told a different way, good ideas are still good ideas. Each time you change its form, you learn more about its function. I found out exactly how heavily I leaned on the language choices (instead of the idea itself) once I stripped it down for a rewrite.
Here’s how our party ended:
Is that line weird for you? It’s a little weird for me. I dunno, maybe I’m overthinking it.
Point is, it’s hard to distil a hairy, unrinsed idea into a single sentence. But it’s also necessary work that very few folks do well.
All of us — copywriters, ghostwriters, screenwriters, journalists, poets, YouTube commenters, Redditors, Twitter-governors and other professional writers — we all sell the same promise: here lies a good story, well-told.
Start there: a headline (whatever its purpose) must suggest inside this box they’ll find the story they long for — and you’re just the girl to tell it. But unless the headline strikes a nerve, who wants to read your shit? Hint: no one.
Before we dissect that nerve, let’s go over what this isn’t.
Writing is not about words.
Writing is not anymore about words than your favorite movie is about dialogue. I wish death to all formulaic click bait headline templates.
You know, those annoying pieces of shit that always go something like “Top 3 ways to fix all your problems. Number 2 will SHOCK you!” or “The ONE Weird Trick Doctors HATE!”
We can smell fishy formulaic click bait from the elevator. Don’t add your fuel to the dumpster fire industry of tricking people into clicking.
She who cares, creates.
‘Care’ is the special sauce. It's the motor of all creative effort and the raw substance of which ideas are made. Any time you care about something, mine deeper into your emotion and see what it's telling you. Emotion is the source material for an idea, and writing doesn't become art until emotion is expressed intellectually.
Here's an example. In college, I was fed up with copywriters' intellectual laziness when click-bait and SEO first stormed onto the scene. I thought this stuff was ruining the world (I had a flair for the dramatic).
So I made an ad satirizing the scumminess of ads; yes I made an ad to mock the ad industry, just before I graduated ad school. I write advertising to this day.
Call it adsterbating, if you will.
Part One has been about the importance of writing a sharp hook.
Part Two is about getting and interpreting feedback. It's about deciding who to keep and who to throw back.
While also teaching the fish a valuable lesson about being annoying. Enjoy.
Took you long enough.
PART TWO: HATERS GON' GIT DEALT WITH
Good feedback almost never happens. When it does, it's usually soaked in pity and frustration, so you're unable to make room for whatever else they say after that (I wouldn't know). In part two, haters gon' get dealt with.