In its January 19, 2013 edition, The Economist ran a short item about Dell Computers’ plans to buy back its publicly listed shares and take the company private again. The article itself was unremarkable; the headline was genius.
The title of the story was: “Ctrl-Shift-Dell.” To combine a computer company’s strategic decision to reinvent its corporate structure with a computer keyboard’s rebooting combination, and to mix in the name of the company itself, and to do it all in exactly 15 characters, was a work of art — even by The Economist‘s lofty standard for headlines and cutlines.
Take it from someone who spent a dozen years in legal journalism: writing good headlines is hard. You need to grab the reader’s attention and direct it towards your story without misleading the reader or making false promises about what the story will deliver. You need to do this in limited space, with limited time, against a backdrop of expectations about what headlines look and sound like. The form of the headline itself has become so ubiquitous that many of The Onion‘s best satirical items are nothing but standalone-joke headlines (“Battle of Wits With Unwieldy Burrito Nears Thrilling Endgame.“)
Measured against those standards, even news organizations can struggle to create good headlines. But after years of reading newsletter articles and blog posts by lawyers, I have to conclude that our profession falls far below even the league average for titles. At best, the headlines that accompany lawyer content are dull and pedestrian, factually describing the contents of the article but failing to inspire the reader to read a single word more.
And then there are titles so bad that they seem designed to actively discourage the reader from even making it to the end of the line. Check out these three headlines taken from large Canadian law firm newsletters in the past several weeks:
- Leave To Appeal To The Court Of Appeal re: Motion To Strike Pleadings Granted In Respect Of Claims To Unjust Enrichment, Denied In Respect Of Claims Under The Trade-Marks Act
- The Continuing Saga Of Permissible Deal Protections In Delaware: Standstill/Pill Combo Not Preclusive If The Mechanics Are Right
- The Superior Court Refused To Issue An Interim Injunction To Prevent The Operation Of A Restaurant, Which Would Violate The Non-Competition And The “Disidentification” Obligations Under A Franchise Agreement
If the headline writer’s objective was to create a one-sentence executive summary of the story, using as few definite or indefinite articles as possible, that would be understood by the person who wrote it and maybe three other people, then mission accomplished. But as a means of encouraging anyone to click through and read the full post, these headlines are failures. Titles like these are almost always written by lawyers, and they could not more effectively convey the lawyer’s lack of interest in whether anyone subsequently reads another word of the article he or she has written.
(Legal journalists, in fairness, sometimes fare no better: an Australian reporter recently achieved the rare feat of creating a quintuple negative to explain a court judgment: ”The grounds of appeal announced on Monday state Justice Sifris erred in not finding Mr Goldberg was wrong in failing to set aside the summonses.” A thousand points if you can figure out from that sentence what the court actually said.)
Here, then, are the ABCs (the ABCDEs, really) of what I think is necessary to ensure a headline is both effective and admirable:
- Accuracy: Be certain the headline correctly conveys the thrust of the article’s facts or expresses the opinions therein, and doesn’t overrepresent or over-promise on the contents. Countless mainstream media headlines fail at this first stage, in a sad effort to generate click-throughs.
- Brevity: Online publishing has overcome the traditional restrictions of the printed page, allowing longer headlines — but many writers abuse the privilege with titles that could be mistaken for short works of prose. Here’s a useful rule: if a headline requires a comma, it’s too long.
- Certainty: There are few headlines more annoying than those that ask a question: “Is The Supreme Court Preparing To Overturn A Basic Constitutional Right?” The answer in the ensuing article is always “No.” If it were yes, it wouldn’t be posed as a question. This is cheap baiting-and-switching.
- Distinctiveness: Headlines are everywhere, so you need to find ways to stand out, especially in form and construction. A catchy phrase, followed by a colon and a short description of the article (see the title of this post) have become cliches, but they still qualify as differentiators in lawyer content.
- Encouragement: The title should make you want to read the article. That’s its entire purpose. To achieve this goal, you need to know who will read the headline, what they care about, and what will catch their attention for being unusual or noteworthy. Know your (headline) reader.
Fundamentally, though, a title can only do so much. If an article cannot be headlined without either boring or misleading the reader, then the fault usually can be found within the article itself.
Accordingly, it falls to the author to make it a habit, when he or she has finished the first draft, to imagine the best headline to accompany the article — and then ask themselves (or, preferably, a potential reader): Who would want to read an article with a title like that? The more often you road-test your headlines before publication, the better you’ll get at crafting titles that will make readers continue to read — and make them glad, at the end, that they did.