Thing Your Headline Should Avoid - And The One Thing It Must Do
|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
|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:
Credibility and Credentials
Join a respected group of successful
men and women who regularly earn a doctor's or attorney's income. You can
easily increase your current earnings without changing jobs or having an
advanced degree...adding $50,000 or $100,000 or more each year to your
current salary. Click on the link for more details: http://www.agora-inc.com/reports/ACL/WACLE111/
"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,
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
|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
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
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 --
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,
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 Thana 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.
The 10 best little-known inns,
guesthouses, and B&B's in Ireland -- International Living. March 2004,
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
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
[Jen Stevens has spent the balance
of the last seven years gallivanting through Latin America and the Caribbean
-- to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and beyond reporting on and
writing about the best locales for overseas travel, retirement, and investment.
She is the former editor of International Living and Island Properties
Report, and she was a writer and editor for several years at Trade &
Culture magazine. Jen is the principal architect and writer of The
Ultimate Travel Writer's Course, published by the American Writers &
Artists Inc -]