As I explained last week, headlines really do offer writers an important opportunity to stand out from the crowd — an opportunity most freelancers miss entirely.
Here are four things you can do to make sure your article headlines grab an editor’s attention every time.
The best headlines contain at least three of the “Four U’s.” “What,” you ask, “are the Four U’s?” They are —
Let me explain…
The best headlines give a reader something he doesn’t think he’ll find anywhere else. Take this headline:
Aeolian Islands: Sweet harbors, warmth, and a lively volcano just north of Sicily
That’s pretty unique. It’s about a place most people probably don’t know much about. Sicily is already a bit off-the-beaten-path. If that’s the “known” reference, well… this promises information I probably won’t find in another article.
Singapore for $30 a night
That’s something you don’t read about every day. In this day and age, it’s pretty hard to stay anywhere for $30 a night.
The best headlines also promise the reader something that will be of use to him as a traveler. Like this headline:
The 10 best little-known inns, guesthouses, and B&B’s in Ireland
That’s practical, useful stuff. If I were traveling to Ireland, I’d take a look at that article. Or how about this one:
Comfort Food at Comforting Prices in Paris
I’m a frequent traveler to Paris. I clipped out this article. It recommends all sorts of small, out-of-the-way bistros and cafes where you’ll eat well and pay little. Sign me up.
In past issues of this e-letter and throughout The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course, I praise the “specific,” those small, distinctive details that give life to your descriptions, for example. Such specifics are important in your headlines as well. Instead of titling your piece “Exploring the Sunny Caribbean,” call it “Three Low-Cost Sailing Trips through the USVI.”
Here’s an example that’s splendidly specific:
9 Days in Switzerland, by Trail and by Rail: Hiking the Upper Engadine Valley
Immediately I know what that article is about. It would capture the attention of any reader who likes to hike. Or how about this one:
The Greatest Ski Run in the World: You start out in the clouds, then ski — down, down, down — for 13 long miles of Alpine grandeur
You can’t get much more specific than that. I’m intrigued. “Where is this place?” I wonder. So what do I do? I read the article! (In case you’re wondering, it’s in France, on the Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc range — you ski down to Chamonix.)
The best headlines make the reader feel he should read this piece sooner rather than later. How do you infuse your headlines with urgency? You can draw attention to its timeliness. For example:
This Autumn, Europe is Yours for $399
For anybody looking to travel to Europe in the fall, this would likely prove immediate reading. Or how about this one:
The Beat in Cuba: A Celebration of Life on an Island That Time Forgot — Before the Tide of Modernity Rolls In
How’s that for “see it now, while it lasts?” That’s urgent.
Another way to make your headline more urgent is to add something that gives your subject the aura of “cutting edge” or “new.” For example:
21 Reasons Why Digital Cameras Are Best
Time Travels: Don’t trust hotel wake-up calls? Neither do we. Toss one of these timekeepers in your bag.
The sense you get from reading those headlines is that there’s some new technology you should take advantage of or some bit of intelligence that might serve you well. What reader doesn’t want to at least be aware of the cutting edge… even if he has no intention of chasing it?
THREE-OUT-OF-FOUR IS GREAT
The truth is, you’d be hard-pressed to cram all “Four U’s” into a headline. I’m not saying it can’t be done — simply that you shouldn’t preoccupy yourself with trying.
If you can manage three-out-of-four, that’s great. Even two-out-of-four isn’t bad.
SO YOUR STORY SELLS… BUT WHERE’S YOUR HEADLINE?
Now, all that said… I have for you what may come as disappointing news. You’ve followed all this sound headline advice. Your story lives up to the promise the editor gleaned in the headline. She buys your story.
But then, what’s this? You open up the magazine and, indeed, there’s your story with your by-line. But they’ve put a new headline on it.
Ah… yes. Well, editors will do that. And there’s not a thing you can do about it. It’s an editor’s prerogative. And editors have all sorts of reasons for fiddling.
Space is one… and graphic considerations. Maybe they already have a headline rather like yours elsewhere and they’re looking for some more variety in the issue…
Finally, it doesn’t matter. Your headline did what it was meant to do. It got an editor’s attention. It helped earn you a check.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]