HOW (AND WHY) TO WRITE HEADLINES TO CATCH AN EDITOR’S EYE
When you walk up to a newsstand or to the magazine rack at the grocery check-out, what do you do? You skim the covers. If a teaser intrigues you, you pick up the issue and flip through it, skimming the headlines.
Those teasers and headlines are designed to grab your attention and draw you in. Yet most travel writers all but ignore this aspect of their stories when they send them to an editor.
They slap a quick “working title” on their articles and send their queries or stories in…
** Buenos Aires Alive
** Malta Uncovered
** Italy’s Lake District
If that’s what you’re doing, you’re missing an important opportunity to set yourself apart from the hundreds of other writers vying for an editor’s attention. The headline is a tool most writers ignore. But I’m going to show you how you can use it to prove to an editor in an instant (and at a glance) that —
** 1) Your piece is well-focused.
** 2) You understand his readership.
** 3) You’re a pro.
MAKE YOUR READER A PROMISE
First, the best headlines promise the reader something. If you’ve targeted your reader well, it’s a promise he can’t resist. Take these examples I found in the New York Times this week:
** “Wakesurfing: Following the Boat Without a Rope” — This promises a new, cool adventure activity.
** “Day Out San Francisco: Colonizing an Urban Frontier” — This promises an introduction to a neighborhood you may never have even heard of before.
** “First Time on the Ship? Take an Audio Tour” — This promises a useful piece of advice to make your travels more enjoyable.
In each of those examples, you know what the story is about and, if you’re the targeted audience, you’re intrigued. You want to read it. That’s the reaction you want an editor to have when he sees your query or your article. So how do you go from “working title” to “winning headline”? Easy.
PUT THE “FOUR U’S” TO GOOD USE
The best headlines are:
(Or, really, they contain as many of those “Four U’s” as you can manage.) Let me show you what I mean.
Say you start with: “Buenos Aires Alive” — that’s your “working title.”
HOW TO MAKE IT MORE UNIQUE
I know your article is about Buenos Aires. But I don’t really know anything else. How could you make it more unique? You want it to indicate to your reader that he’s going to find in your piece something he won’t find anywhere else.
How about: “Tango and Art in an Up-and-Coming Buenos Aires Neighborhood”
That’s better. I now know some more about your theme. And I know it’s not about all of Buenos Aires, but a portion of town. Already this headline has improved.
HOW TO MAKE IT MORE USEFUL
Now think about how you could make it more useful. You want your reader to see it and think, “This will help me when I travel…”
How about: “An Afternoon Escape: Tango and Art in an Up-and-Coming Buenos Aires Neighborhood”
That’s better again. Now I know I’m going to read about a place I could visit and enjoy in an afternoon — an excursion within the city. This will be useful as I plan my trip.
HOW TO MAKE IT MORE SPECIFIC
The revisions thus far have already added specifics to this headline, but you may be able to take them a step further. You could, for example, name the neighborhood.
How about: “An Afternoon in San Telmo: Tango and Art in an Up-and-Coming Buenos Aires Neighborhood”
Or, even better, how about: “A Chic Afternoon of Tango and Art in Buenos Aires’ Once-Bohemian San Telmo”
This latest version shaves a couple of words (precision is always good) and, I think, with “chic” offers a little more insight into the kind of afternoon you’ll describe.
HOW TO MAKE IT MORE URGENT
Now, there’s one more “U” to attend to, and that is “urgent.” The best headlines make your reader feel that he should read your piece sooner rather than later. So how do you infuse your headline with urgency? One way is to draw attention to its timeliness.
How about: “A Chic Fall Afternoon of Tango and Art in Buenos Aires’ Once-Bohemian San Telmo”
By adding a season or a month, your reader immediately understands this isn’t an ongoing thing. It’s pegged to a certain time frame. Better read it now lest he miss out.
Another way you could make this more urgent would be to give it an air of “See it before it’s too late…”
How about: “Once-Bohemian, Quickly Becoming Chic: An Afternoon of Tango and Art in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo”
Naturally, the actual content of your piece informs the choices you make as you transform your “working title” into an effective headline. But always, your headline should describe accurately what your article is about. You want it to grab an editor’s attention — just the way those teasers and headlines in magazines grab yours. And you want the editor to then begin to read and see that, in fact, you’ve delivered on the promise your headline makes.
When you do that — when you deliver a strong, promise-filled headline full of specifics and then provide below it an equally well-focused article — you will sell your stories every time.
[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.]