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Headlines really do offer writers an important opportunity to stand out from the crowd. And it really is, you know, a crowd you’re in. I think it’s safe to say that most travel editors, save perhaps those at the very smallest publications, receive at least 100 submissions a month. Randy Curwen, Travel Editor at the Chicago Tribune told me he gets about 100 submissions a week. At the big glossies — Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and the like — about 1% of submissions actually make it into print. I don’t offer these statistics to discourage you. I simply want to illustrate how critically important it is that you take advantage of every opportunity you can to distinguish yourself from the many other freelancers hoping, like you, to sell their stories. The first time you have a chance to do this is with your headline. You shouldn’t let it slip by. Here are a couple things I learned on the editor’s side of the desk — things most writers never figure out… 1) Resist Being Clever Novice writers fall into an unfortunate habit of trying to be clever with headlines. I beg of you: Buck the urge. I have no problem with clever. Clever — done right — can be very rewarding. A truly clever headline makes the corners of your mouth turn up just a hair when you read it. But I’ll give it to you straight: Such headlines are very hard to write. The odds of you nailing one are slim. That’s why, when you look through publications, you’ll find very few. Go ahead, go pick up five publications and see how many clever headlines you find. I assure you: It won’t be many. I just flipped through 11 magazines and came up with only three headlines that might count as clever — see what you think:

    • “Code, but no ethics” from The Economist. The subhead reads: “Microsoft stumbles from one security fiasco to the next” (The Economist. Feb 21-27, 2004, p. 61)
    • “Outsourcing the Friedman” from The Nation, an essay about Thomas Friedman’s New York Times commentaries on outsourcing jobs. (The Nation. March 22, 2004, p. 10)
    • “Putting on Weight?” from National Geographic Traveler. The subhead reads: Too heavy, too big, too much. The rules of baggage are changing.” (National Geographic Traveler, March 2004, p. 16)

The fundamental problem with clever, though, is not that it’s so hard to get right. It’s that it’s vague. It doesn’t really tell a reader what an article is about, it merely intrigues. That’s why you get the subheads — they really do the heavy lifting. There’s another problem with clever, too. Clever headlines tend to be more about the writer than they are about the reader. They say, in essence: “See how clever I am? I came up with this headline.” Admittedly, there’s a certain subconscious stroking of the reader as well — if you “get” the clever headline, then you, by association, feel clever too. But people don’t stop to read a travel article because they want to feel clever. Bottom line: Your headline will capture a reader’s attention if it makes a promise he finds irresistible. It all comes back to your audience. And when you’re writing a headline for your article, your audience is the editor. 2) Make a Straightforward Promise Straightforward is best. Digest the “promise” in your article — the main thing you want your reader to come away understanding — into one concise phrase. Let’s look at these 20 headlines. I think you’ll see my point.

    • Alaska: America’s last great frontier turns everyday travelers (and photographers) into spirited adventurers — National Geographic Traveler. Jan/Feb 2004, p. 39
    • Comfort Food at Comforting Prices in Paris — New York Times. January 18, 2004, p. TR8
    • 9 Days in Switzerland, by Trail and by Rail: Hiking the Upper Engadine Valley of Switzerland — Marco Polo Magazine. Winter 2004, p. 40
    • 21 Reasons Why Digital Cameras Are Best — National Geographic Traveler. Jan/Feb 2004, cover
    • Aeolian Islands: Sweet harbors, warmth, and a lively volcano just north of Sicily — National Geographic Traveler. Jan/Feb 2004, p. 62
    • The Other New York: a different, better, and cheaper way to enjoy a renowned city — Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. October 2003, p. 84
    • Wild Ways: Beyond Victoria’s manicured gardens, grand natural spectacles play out on the wilder shores of Vancouver Island — Islands. November 2003, p. 58
    • For sail: A slower, smaller option — Chicago Tribune. September 7, 2003, Section 8, p. 1
    • 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 — National Geographic Traveler. October 2003, p. 78
    • Singapore for $30 a night — International Living. March 2004, p. 18
    • Get away from the beach in the Caribbean to find plenty of adventure — Chicago Tribune. January 18, 2004, Section 8, p. 1
    • This Autumn, Europe is Yours for $399 — Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. October 2003, cover
    • The High Cost of Low Fares: European budget airlines offer great deals, but what are you giving up? — Conde Nast Traveler. February 2003, p. 75
    • Going the Distance: Bermuda’s friendly people and superb scenery make a half-marathon walk feel like a stroll in the park — Islands. July/August 2003, p. 34
    • The Call of the River: In serene natural surroundings, these five fishing lodges lure even non-anglers — National Geographic Traveler. September 2003, p. 108
    • Time Travels: Don’t trust hotel wake-up calls? Neither do we. Toss one of these timekeepers in your bag. — National Geographic Traveler. Jan/Feb 2004, p. 21
    • Where Golf Is More Than a Game: At the PGA National Resort in Florida, a duffer can feel, if not play, like a pro — New York Times. January 11, 2004, p. TR 9
    • Deep Banff: Canada’s first national park is heavily visited and highly commercialized. But get off the main road, and you can still experience its indescribable beauty far from the shops and the SUVs — National Geographic Traveler. July/August 2003, p. 70
    • The 10 best little-known inns, guesthouses, and B&B’s in Ireland — International Living. March 2004, p. 1
    • The Beat in Cuba: A Celebration of Life on an Island That Time Forgot — Before the Tide of Modernity Rolls In — National Geographic Traveler. March 2004, p. 96

All of those headlines promise the reader something. Yours should, too. In fact, a strong headline reveals to the editor all sorts of things beyond that promise. It shows — You’ve put enough thought into your article that you are able to digest this main idea into one phrase — which means your piece is likely to be well-focused. You’ve given some thought to the audience for this publication, because the promise your headline makes is one that would, indeed, appeal to its readers. You’ve polished your approach. You’re a pro. Next week I’ll show you exactly how it’s done. [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.]

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