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Made You Look: The Secret to Writing Great Titles

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Why did you click on this article? Hopefully, it's because you were intrigued by the promise made in the title. From novels to blog posts, a title can entice a reader to open a book or click on a link...or encourage them to move on to the next one. Here's how to write titles that tempt instead of tank.

The current trend in titles is extreme hyperbole, as popularized by Upworthy, a site that promises a steady supply of shocking revelations or heartwarming-yet-unexpected stories. This style of post style is so popular because it's effective, but its popularity is also its Achilles Heel. As more and more sites adopted this formula, the backlash continues to grow. One enterprising programmer created Downworthy, a browser extension that alters clickbait-style headlines by changing phrases like "will blow your mind" to "might perhaps mildly entertain you for a moment." There's also a parody headline generator created by McSweeney's contributor Mike Lacher.

"Clickbait has been around for years," writes Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic. "Through ridiculousness, sexiness, or just by withholding critical information from a reader, it tantalizes people in such a way that they can't help but see what's on the other side--tallying, crucially, a page view."

Here's the problem with these headlines: They make promises they can't keep. Not every YouTube clip can be the most shocking video ever, just as not every story will blow our minds or change the way we see the world.

Angela Stringfellow at unbounce.com suggests controversy and sensationalism as click-through tactics, but she cautions bloggers to actually deliver the goods. Lists posts are perennial favorites--we write them too!--as are "How To" posts, but it can be hard to stand out from the sea of similar titles. Adding a dash of hyperbole can be effective; promising the most awesome, most extreme, or most hilarious stuff may tempt a reader to click on your link, but if the content doesn't live up to the title then readers won't be inclined to share it on Facebook or Twitter.

Similarly, controversial statements like "Why Jennifer Lawrence Is Actually an Awful Person" may get a lot of curious or angry clicks, but if you can't back up your thesis with evidence, your readers will feel as though you've pulled a bait and switch. (For the record, we think Jennifer Lawrence is swell.)

So what is the secret to writing a great title?

Make a clear, concise promise to the reader. While tricks and gimmicks may come and go, the ability to communicate your message as clearly and briefly as possible will never go out of style.

Which would you rather read: Trimalchio in West Egg or The Great Gatsby? What about First Impressions versus Pride and Prejudice? Those were the original titles of the classic novels, and frankly, they stunk. Fitzgerald's original title (one of many) for his most famous work was terrible. It makes no clear promises about the story and makes an obscure reference to a character in a Roman novel. His revised title is better for several reasons: It's shorter, alliterative, and gives the readers a better sense of what to expect. First Impressions isn't as bad, but it is generic. The alliteration in Pride and Prejudice makes it more memorable, and it more accurately depicts the tension between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

With apologies to Shakespeare, brevity is the soul of Twitter. Twitter's 140-character limit drives choices about title length. Brian Clark of Copyblogger recommends headlines of about eight words. This length also ensures that your title won't get truncated in emails or on Facebook.

Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't also remind you to proofread. It doesn't matter how incredibly attention-grabbing your hook is; if you've misspelled a word, forgotten a comma, or (our personal pet peeve) failed to capitalize the correct words, you're going to lose readers.