Stop crying, start writing: The Awl, The Atlantic, and Web Headlines

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Ian Lurie May 12 2011

OK, everyone take a step back. Go to your corners. Breathe.

google doesn't laugh

Yesterday, David Wheeler published an article about web copywriting, SEO, and headlines: ‘Google Doesn’t Laugh’: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO is a great piece, and not just because he quotes me in paragraph 14.

Then The Awl wrote this amusing little poem, titled This is Why We Can’t Have Funny Headlines. I’m guessing it’s meant to be more funny than informative.

But then I started seeing it popping alongside The Atlantic article in hand-wringing rants about the death of creativity in writing.

I’ve heard this from a lot of writers over the last two years. “We want to write creative headlines, but we can’t, because you told us not to with your blank sheet of paper test.”

You’re wrong, and you haven’t been listening. Or listened selectively. Or something. If we were in class, I’d throw an eraser at you. In a nice way. Nuthin’ but love.

It’s easier to go to extremes

I guess it’s easier to see things as an on/off, yes/no proposition. That’s probably the source of The Awl’s poem, and of Matthew Crowley’s sentiment in The Atlantic article. Wheeler quotes Crowley as saying “I think we’re losing something when we take the wordplay and surprise out of headline writing.”

You don’t have to take the wordplay and surprise out of headline writing. You have to work to be descriptive and clever at the same time. I’d swear that’s what great writers have done for thousands of years.

Too hard? Too bad.

It’s about your readers

First off, this isn’t about Google. Don’t confuse cause and effect.

Google’s team didn’t sit down and say “Mwahahahahahaha, let’s change how the world thinks and force people to look for descriptive headlines.” Google looks for headlines that accurately describe article content because that’s what the readers want. They want descriptive headlines online because they’ll often see those headlines in a search result, or an RSS feed, or on another site. There’s little context, so the reader wants a headline that tells them what they’ll see.

Write a non-descriptive headline and you can get all sorts of cringe-worthy disasters, like:

“Colon pounded”

In print, that might work. Online, your readers have no idea what you’re talking about.

It’s about readers, not Google.

It’s not about you

Second, it’s not about you. I know that I, as a writer, hate it when I have to change a really clever headline. But long before the web, editors made me do just that if the headline was utterly uninformative.

Shed the ego. You’re writing for readers, not for your own edification. Otherwise, journalists and other writers could end up like many web designers: More concerned with winning awards than creating something of real value.

It’s a challenge, not a roadblock

Third, who the hell said you can’t write interesting headlines? I said you have to write descriptive headlines. The Atlantic says you have to write descriptive headlines.

Why can’t a headline be (gasp) informative and funny/pithy/catchy?

Great headlines should be both.

Also, remember, you can write longer headlines online than off, because online means little or no space restrictions.

For example: “‘Google Doesn’t Laugh’: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO

Or: “What bayonet-wielding professors can teach you about online marketing”

Or, if you want to use the headline examples from The Atlantic:

“The Beast Within: Animal Planet shows it’s all about us”
“Spice: Cooking is Nimoy’s Final Frontier”

SEOs, learn to write

This debate cuts both ways: If you’re an SEO, you’d damned well better learn to write. Most SEOs barely grasp grammar. If you really want writers to put up with your meddling, you’d better meet them halfway. Don’t point and say “make it descriptive” if you can’t explain how to do it.

‘Cause it’s not about you and your ego, either. It’s. About. The. Readers.

Rail or write: It’s your choice

You can rail against the injustice of it all, or you can start writing. Find solutions. Write fantastic headlines and inform readers at the same time.

If you can’t do it, that’s fine. There are plenty of writers who can.

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3 Comments

  1. Dude this is gold! A couple of things jumped out at me.
    1. It’s easier to go to extremes
    I notice this time and time again, and not just with writing headlines. People take this feeble minded approach to religion, politics, health and pretty much everything else.
    I can’t help but wonder what the underlying psychological cause is…
    2. It’s a challenge, not a roadblock
    Challenges appear for a reason. It’s is only by conquering them that we are able to learn and grow.
    One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison, it’s not an exact quote but basically he said:
    “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
    There is no such thing as a roadblock.
    Great post my friend!

  2. Travis

    Another great post Ian.
    @Micah – I’m definitely not an expert, but my guess as to the psychological cause that people go to extremes is that it is easier. Most people don’t want to think too hard about the important things, they don’t want to work too hard, and they don’t want to put out the effort it takes to consider alternatives.
    I’ve been guilty of it myself…especially regarding things I don’t enjoy.

  3. Ian

    @Micah Thanks sir! Edison had it right. Plus, I don’t think the headlines thing is as big a deal as people make it out to be. I remember similar complaints when TV advertising formats changed, yet people found a way to make it work.

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