Let’s face it, “How to write brilliant article titles” isn’t the best title in the world. But it’s exactly what I need to pick up new readers. I’ll come back to this contradiction in a minute, but I need to dish out a bit of context first.

If you read yesterday’s post on Twitter and copywriting, you’ll remember that — stuck for ideas — I asked my Twitter followers whether there was anything they wanted me to blog about. Just as I’d got stuck in on my chosen topic, I got another response from @TonjaC:

@benlocker I know you asked for suggestions a while ago, but here’s one for next time: Good titles are hard for me to write. Suggestions?

Well, as it happens, I have. But it depends who you are writing for, and in what format. Here goes…

Know your audience

There’s no point making clever in-jokes about French poetry if you’re thinking up a title for a Drain Trader article. The audience for this publication wants to know about the world of drains, and it wants you to tell it about them in clear language. Nor will titles that include the phrase “down the drain” be deemed funny.

That said, this offering, which I’ve just plucked off Drain Trader’s website isn’t all that hot either: SP Holding puts on a ‘Whale’ of a Show.

I don’t know about you, but the unnecessary inverted commas and the inconsistent approach to capitalisation make me feel queasy. Still, the headline writer is sufficiently confident his audience will know who or what SP Holding is: it’s not a title he’d get away with in a magazine about flower arranging. Not enough drain traders dabble in posies.

Pander to prejudice

There’s nothing like telling readers what they want to hear; and if you share the same point of view, then so much the better. There’s a classic story about a young Irishwoman who was hit by a train on London’s Underground. She died, leading to headlines like “Girl dies in train accident”, or “Fatal tragedy on Tube” (I’m making these up, but you get the idea). However, one Irish republican newspaper knew exactly what its readers wanted to hear, and it gave it to them:

English Train Kills Irish Girl

Which leads us nicely to the third point.

Make it memorable

If a title sticks in the memory, people will remember the story you have to tell, or the product you are trying to sell. Sticking with newspapers for a moment, few people in the UK will forget the classic Sun headline:

Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster

Similarly, company straplines and advertising slogans are nothing more than very, very good headlines. Think ‘Running Water for You’ or ‘Go To Work On An Egg‘.

Be confident

The last newspaper example, I promise, but who could forget the English headline writer who came up with this?

Fog In Channel. Continent Cut Off.

Yes, it’s probably aprocryphal, but who cares?

Keep it short

Everyone knows that academics produce some of the worst prose in the English speaking world. You only have to open a scholarly journal to be confronted with something like this:

Murderous symbolism or just hot at the extremities? Roland of Arras and the dynastic sigificance of socks in the 14th century.

Okay, I made that up too — but it’s just the sort of thing I had to plough through when I was an undergraduate. What’s wrong with saying something like ‘How Roland of Arras Socked It To His Rivals’?

Keep it relevant

This is the most important one of all. The best titles clearly indicate what a piece of writing is about. There’s no point kicking off a piece about life in the former Upper Volta with a quote from an Inuit. Unless it’s very obviously an Inuit writing about the Upper Volta.

When it comes to online writing, this rule is essential. In the old days, titles were there to whet the appetite and stimulate interest. That’s still true, but these days they have to be catalogue entries too — otherwise no-one will find them on in the internet. Especially an internet in which people seem to be more interested in self help than a nice turn of phrase. That’s why this piece is called ‘How to write brilliant article titles’ — it says what it contains, and hints that readers will be able to do much better.

And I’m sure you will. What would you have called this piece?