Back to Basics: 9 Lessons in Writing Tabloid-Worthy Headlines

Consider some of these actual historical examples of tabloid headlines:

Tabloid headlines excel at three things, in succession:

  1. First, grabbing a reader’s attention;
  2. Then persuading them to buy a copy of the tabloid;
  3. And finally to read that article.

That’s what makes them the perfect model for writing great content headlines. No matter what your niche or topic, and no matter what kind of content you’re creating, your goal as the writer or content marketer is always to grab the attention of the audience you’re targeting, then persuade them to read your article or blog post.

How to write tabloid-worthy headlines

Let’s take a look at what makes tabloid headlines so successful at those tasks, and the nine lessons we can take away from them. These lessons can help you improve your content headlines and keep your users on your page and site for longer periods of time.

1. Boil it down to foundational facts

Before you try to create something pithy, witty, punny, or just funny, first make sure you’re communicating something essential about your content. Note that each of the four examples above tell you the basics of the story, or at least a few major points to give you the contours of the underlying facts.

While tabloid headlines, just like catchy digital content headlines, often use humor, puns, or cultural references to grab attention, that’s not their only function or purpose. The headline makes a promise that the body of the content must deliver on if you want the user to keep reading. If there’s any kind of substantial disconnect there, the user will feel duped or deceived. This is one of the primary reasons users will derogatorily label a piece “linkbait.”

To avoid this, start by simply jotting down words and phrases that convey the most elemental facts of your piece or story, which you can then work into short and creative headlines.

2. Add specific details

Headlines are not the place for vague references and archetypes — not if you want them to zing. Be specific. You’re not simply writing about “headlines” but “tabloid headlines,” or “HR in the fintech industry” instead of just “HR.” The more specific you are, the likelier you are to hit your target.

Look at the elemental words and phrases you jotted down in the first step. How can you add specificity and nuance to those elements? Play around with those words and phrases so that you can target your headline with precision to the exact kind of readers you want to target. Don’t worry yet about the character length of your headline. You can always tighten it up before publishing.

3. Decide how best to support your piece with the headline

A headline can stake out territory along a number of different spectrums. Should your headline be formal or funny? Should it cite data or should it use poetry? Who exactly are you trying to reach?

Think about the contours and the nature of the content you’re writing. A snarky, funny or punny headline works great for a piece that’s light-hearted and infused with humor, but it will be jarring and inappropriate paired with a more serious and business-like piece of content. Let the content tell you what kind of headline it needs.

4. Make it negative

It might seem counterintuitive, but negativity sells. Consider using your headline to stoke just a little fear or anxiety. Your readers will be more inclined to click and read a piece on “7 Ways to Avoid Getting in Trouble With the IRS” than a piece on “How to File Taxes Properly.”

You can also evoke that need-to-know feeling in your reader by conveying urgency and a built-in deadline or consequences. But don’t think you have to state an actual date or specific consequence to prompt that click. “What You Must Know Before You File Your Freelance Taxes,” for example, is more compelling than “How to File Your Freelance Taxes.”

5. Create curiosity

Remember when we suggested you make your headlines clearer and more specific? We still think that’s a good idea — but you also need to create a bit of mystery and curiosity with your headline. Nothing draws in a reader and persuades them to keep reading like an unanswered question.

What can you withhold from your fundamental facts to stoke a little curiosity in a person who comes across your headline? For example, “3 Financial Missteps That Will Ruin Your Startup” evokes a little fear, a little negativity (see above) and also some curiosity. What are those three missteps? A startup founder or CFO will absolutely want to find out.

6. Add a bit of wit

Smart puns, clever wordplay, or a dash of humor can transform a good headline into an outstanding one. This isn’t easy to learn — some folks seem to have a facility with written humor whereas others find it a challenge.

Here are a few tips for infusing your headlines with humor or wit:

  • Pay attention to letter sounds. Even a little alliteration can create enough interest to prompt a click. Consider “Five Financial Fumbles for Startups to Watch Out For” versus “Five Financial Mistakes Startups Should Avoid.” The additional alliteration with the third “f” sound in “fumbles” gives the headline just a dash more color and fun.
  • Use a thesaurus to find similar words that you might be able to build into puns. Be careful with puns, though; they work well with the right kind of content tone but if your piece is serious or professional in tone, puns can be off-putting.
  • Consider a short, well-placed parenthetical. In a headline, it can provide just the right format for a small, funny aside that makes your user do a double-take and click out of curiosity. Consider the difference between “Financial Stumbles Every Startup Should Avoid” and “Financial Stumbles Every Startup Should Avoid (Yes, I’m Speaking from Experience)” — they’re both clear and persuasive but that second one adds a personal bit of schadenfreude and self-deprecation that most readers won’t be able to resist.
  • Subvert reader expectations. With headlines, the best way to do this is through a twisted cliche. A headline along the lines of “A bird in the hand is worth a year of your CEO’s salary” or “No use crying over spilled single malt scotch” will take the reader by surprise and encourage them to read the piece that accompanies it.
  • Go big. Overstating things a little makes readers roll their eyes. Overstating things to a wild degree makes readers laugh — or at least want to read more to see how you defend your characterization. “How to gain an Instagram audience the size of Switzerland” is funny. No one will take it literally (probably), but it’ll definitely grab their attention.

7. But don’t go overboard

To keep your humor appropriate and avoid offending a large swath of your audience, follow these tips:

  • Make your humor self-deprecating, where possible. This might not be as practical with headlines as it would be for the body of the content itself.
  • Avoid humor that’s insulting or derogatory toward any person or type of person.
  • Keep it simple and minimal. Think about adding a dash of spice to a nearly perfect dish, rather than dumping in too much and ruining it.
  • Don’t force the issue. Humor that feels forced or crammed into the headline purely for the sake of making it funny almost never has the desired effect. Err on the side of caution.

8. Review the headline with an eye toward SEO

Humor, wit, a little scarcity or negativity — these are all helpful ingredients to a tabloid-worthy headline. But on the web, they must all get in line behind readability and SEO. Make sure you’ve included your primary targeted keywords and that it reads like it was written for a human being, not a computer.

If you have to sacrifice the funny bits or the SEO, you’ll want to keep the SEO in most cases. Of course, there are always exceptions. You might have a piece of content that’s so strong that it’ll get shared often enough to overcome any SEO shortcomings. If that’s the case, keep the humor, lose the keywords.

9. Trim your headline down to keep it lean and punchy

With few exceptions (like that Armagh Gazette example doing a punny riff on “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen), shorter and pithier is better for tabloid-style headlines. Keep it tight. Don’t use nine words if you can use five. Don’t use five if four will do just as well.

Of course, you want to avoid trimming it so much that you lose meaning. The classic example is the exhortation to “omit unnecessary words.” You could trim that to “omit words,” but something rather essential gets lost in the edit.

Remember the headline’s sole purpose

The goal of every headline is to convince the reader to click on the link, to read the article, and to keep reading because the content is actually valuable and of interest.

The value of writing tabloid-like headlines is that they help meet that goal. Always keep your eyes on the objective, whether you’re writing a headline, subheads, a dek, or the copy itself: Keep that reader interested so they stay on the page.


Thanks for reading! Do you want to create thought leadership articles like the one above? If you struggle to translate your ideas into content that will help build credibility and influence others, sign up to get John’s latest online course “Writing From Your Voice” here.

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