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Writing enticing headlines, subheadings and links

Why is the skill of the headline writer so important for a newspaper or magazine? It’s the headlines that sell the publication, and keep the reader reading! It’s an essential requirement for the web-writer too.

There is much we can learn from journalism. The classic text on this subject is Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy. It is widely available: Amazon.com new and secondhand. See our other book recommendations also.

Says Andrew Careaga, public relations expert and web evangelism commentator :

“I can tell you, from a journalist’s/editor’s point of view, that headlines (or, in the Web’s case, headline-links) are the most important pieces of text in any publication, and the ones we spend the least time on. We’ll edit and revise our lovely stories till we’re blue in the face, then spend 30 seconds slapping a headline over them and expect people to read them!

Ogilvy’s book is a classic. Study the headlines of effective ads. They’re often the best headlines you’ll find in print. Perhaps because the people writing them must do well, or they lose money.”

The writing of advertising slogans is a similar skill. In the secular world, these skills are often used wrongly to appeal to wrong emotions, feelings or needs. This does not invalidate the importance of being able to sum up an article or link in a handful of words which really make the reader want to continue.

Five types of headline

There are four different places on a website where we need to summarize content in a meaningful and enticing way. In an evangelistic context, where we are using secular bridge pages or testimony pages, it may not be appropriate to necessarily explain that the page has any Christian content. And certainly at all times, we must try to avoid idiom and Christian jargon.
  1. The first heading on a page

    This must sum up that webpage and create a desire to read the whole thing. It must be short, possibly humorous. Be careful about using newspaper-style puns because second-language speakers in other countries may not understand them.)

    Where appropriate, words within quote marks (as frequently used in journalism) are enticing and eye-catching. So are the worda ‘you’ and ‘your’, because they immediately connect the content to the reader.

    You should use <H> tags for at least your first page heading (rather than font size specifications) because search engines give higher ranking to words containing within <H> tags. For this reason, include words in your first heading (and also first paragraph) which people are likely to use to search for pages such as yours.

  2. Subheadings

    Break up text into short paragraphs – it is much more readable on a computer monitor. And use frequent subheadings to start some paragraphs or sections, to entice the visitor to continue to read. A subheading is usually shorter than a heading – it may be just one or two words, or a quotation taken from the subsequent section. Don’t believe they make any difference? View a page as originally written, and then with the addition of an enticing heading and subheadings, with shorter paragraphs: before | after. (These pages also demonstrate the value of font choice (Verdana versus Arial, with wider line-spacing, the inclusion of a graphic, and wider page margins.)
  3. Strap or tag lines

    A ‘strap’ or ‘tag’ line gives a sense of an organization or website in two or three words. For example, Ford Cars UK has the strap line ‘Feel the difference’. Whatever organizational name you brand your site with (and it in an evangelistic context, it may be better to choose a different name than the one you present to your Christian public), you can also use a strap line (or ‘tag line') – 3 to 6 words which amplify and sum up your purpose in a memorable way. IFES, for example, use “changing students for life worldwide”. Of course, an evangelistic site should not have a strap line which “gives the game away”, is cringeworthy, condescending, or otherwise inappropriate to non-Christians.

  4. Links

    You must give people a good reason to bother to click through to your links on other pages. There should be sufficient enticing information in the link description. Two or three words may not be enough. You can enhance any link by placing a more detailed description as title tooltip within the coding for the link, as is used on most links on this site.

  5. The <title> tag

    The ‘title’ tag for each web-page is also very important. This is the line visible in your browser ’top bar', which a search engine will display as the page title in its results listings. Both the title tag and meta description must be enticing. However, you must not waste words in the title tag, and as far as possible, almost every word must be one that a person is likely to use to search for your site. The skill is similar to that needed to write a newspaper classifed advert in a minimum of words. More on writing titles and descriptions.
For more on page layout and design for readability, see Copywriting and Communication.

Resources on headline writing

General links on writing for the web

Read more Firefox iconrelated pages within the Writing well menu links
book graphicrecommended books on writing, including free downloads
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