What HuffPo UK teaches us about writing headlines

The Huffington Post launches its UK edition today, with founder Arianna Huffington hoping to replicate the success of the US model, which was recently bought by AOL for $315million. Featuring posts from paid and unpaid bloggers, it offers UK-focused content in an American skin. So the titles are all capitalised rather than in sentence case. Dates are written with the month first, making today 07.06.2011. And then there's the headlines. The underwhelming, unenticing, meat'n'potatoes headlines.

My first trip to the US was in 1999 and I remember looking at USA Today over breakfast and feeling a bit baffled at the way the content was written. The abstract titles; the way it's presented as a narrative that you have to read in full, rather than giving you the key points right at the beginning. Then, over time, I realised it wasn't just a USA Today thing. There's just a big gulf in the way US and UK journalists approach their content.

In the Sweet Retweets workshops we talk a lot about writing titles that people will want to read and share. One of my favourite examples of how not to do it is from The New York Times earlier this year: 'A Clash Of Civilisation Saviors'. What does that actually mean? If you can summon up the enthusiasm to read on you discover that it's actually about Amy Chua and her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A UK publication would avoid the abstract and write something like: 'Tiger mother gets claws out over controversial parenting book.'

So with today's launch of HuffPo UK it's interesting to note that while it offers UK-themed content, it's not dressed up in the same way. Let's look at some of the headlines from today's edition and see how they can be made more clickable, more shareable and a little bit less boring:

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Blimey, that's a bit of a mouthful isn't it? The word wedding twice, that correct-but-clunky possessive apostrophe after Moss, plus the feeble question which makes you shrug and say reply, 'well, er, dunno really.' Then when you click through to the actual piece on MyDaily the byline is 'I'm convinced that it's Kate Moss who really had the wedding of the year.' Well, there's your title: 'Which Kate had the wedding of the year?'

Tip: Read your headline out loud to check it makes sense. How can you make it sharper, more direct and more succinct?

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The piece is all about global health and maternal mortality in the developing world but you wouldn't know this from the title would you? The phrase 'having it all' is discussed in the latter part of the article, but in the context of the headline you get the impression it's just another article about multi-tasking working mothers.

There's also an important point to be made about SEO here. If you want people to find your content, make sure you mention the key phrases in your title.

Tip: Avoid the abstract. Always say what your content is about.

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This is a very closed statement which most people would agree with. So they don't see the benefit of clicking through. The sub could have picked out a few of the interesting elements of the article and included them in the title to hint at the content that lies beyond. Or found a way of drawing the reader in to make them feel involved, plus a couple of strong adjectives to give it that extra kick: 'Why our dysfunctional Parliament desperately needs reform.'

Tip: Tease the reader. But don't give the game away or they won't click through.

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What's with the 'perfect storm' bit? And anyway this article is all about the Olympics. And is there a problem or isn't there? There are just too many ideas going on here.

I do find titles written as questions to be very effective in grabbing the reader's attention. It lets you turn the whole thing round so it focuses on them and their opinion. It often enables you to be more direct, cut out redundant words and make the title sharper.

However, if you're going to do this, make sure people know exactly what you're asking. Or you risk confusing them. And confusion is not going to increase your page impressions or encourage people to share it on social networks.

Tip - If you're stuck, phrase it as a question. But keep it simple!

Further reading: Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans' Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers discusses headline-writing in exquisite detail, and covers the different approaches of US and UK journalism. A great read.