#107: How to Write Gripping Headlines

Dear Story Nurse,

It’s a small thing, but I need help understanding how to create compelling titles.

I’ve found a job writing articles and it pays me enough to make a living. Writing as paying gig is a new development for me; until recently, I’d really only written fiction as a private and unpaid hobby. Yet now I’m reporting on local government actions, generating updates on research projects in our area, and crafting biographies on notable residents.

It’s terrifying that I’m actually doing this and also amazing. My editor/boss has helped with the structure and flow of my articles, but I still have some anxiety about my abilities, particularly when it comes to crafting compelling (and concise) titles. I know that I will not lose my job over it, but my ineptitude in this area creates a lot of noise in my head regarding my skills. That head noise puts me on edge, making it difficult to get out of my own way and do my job.

I’ve written and rewritten titles as a writing exercise. It can take me an hour to get something mediocre; my boss can create one in ten seconds. To be fair to myself, he has been doing this years longer than I have. But I don’t have an hour to spare for every article.

Is there a titling manual I missed somewhere? Am I (or my anxiety) making this too difficult? Are there less formulaic exercises I can do? Do you know of a different approach other than rewriting the same thing over and over? An internet search points me to sites relying on formulas. My editor can’t describe his title creating process other than ‘just say what it is without giving it all away’ but also to be interesting while doing so.

For further clarity, my editor prefers titles that give a hint without telling the whole story. The title can be as few as two words and usually no more than eight. Subtitles can be up to another eight to nine words.

Thank you.

—New Here (she/her)

Dear New Here,

I’m guessing from your single quotes that you’re not in the U.S., and perhaps that’s why you’re using title where I would say headline. If you’re writing articles reporting on news, they need headlines (and subheds—yes, that spelling is correct). Your searches for information on writing good headlines may be more fruitful just with this change in terminology.

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#34: What It Means to Be Blocked

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a professional writer. I write list articles for a website that focuses on trends in geek culture. I usually average about 1750 words per article. It’s a fun gig and I get paid to write about my favorite things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It’s part time so I supplement my income by working at a grocery store.

The problem? I’m blocked.

And it’s just on my list articles. I can sit down and plug away at my passion and practice projects (thanks for the idea for practice projects!). But I’m running out of ideas for list articles and when I sit down to write I just end up staring at the outlines I made with nothing to say. It doesn’t help that I sometimes work early shifts and come home too tired to write. Is there anything you would recommend to get unblocked?

—Blocked (she/her)

Dear Blocked,

Thanks for this very interesting question. Being blocked on writing that one is obligated to do—for work, for school, because of any other external commitment—is something we don’t usually think about the way we think about being blocked on creative projects. But it certainly does happen, and the root causes are very similar.

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#11: Revision Requires Letting Go

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a longtime journalist (mostly editing but often reporting and writing), and I struggle to get far enough away from my words to edit my first draft—I often submit a draft that I’ve revised but is still twice as long as commissioned.

I have no problem editing others’ words, but after I’ve put in the work to report, distill, and write an article, I can no longer read it clearly enough to decide where to make structural changes, what information is too much, and so on.

Maybe this is a problem all writers have? Maybe it’s just a matter of letting the draft sit for a day or two before I revise and submit (but I’m often on tight deadlines and that’s not always an option). I’d love to hear what other writers do to distance themselves from the words they’ve put down in order to self-edit—it’d be really helpful not just in my reporting but also in my wishlist of fiction writing.

—Too Close (he/him)

Dear Too Close,

I don’t think this is a problem all writers have, but it’s definitely a problem lots of writers have. There are very few arts or crafts where an important part of creation is destroying part of what you’ve created. Even sculptors don’t have to make the marble before they start chipping it away. This is why you hear “kill your darlings” so often—not because any phrase you fall in love with is inherently not worth keeping around, but because we have to accustom ourselves to wielding the red pen on the same work we spent so much time sweating out. It can be very emotionally and psychologically difficult to do that.

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