Game Journalism Writing Advice

How to write great headlines without resorting to clickbait

One of the worst things about the internet is clickbait: Top 10 Ways to Get Infinite Gold in Runescape - Number 6 Will SHOCK You!; Why is Lara Croft Wearing THIS in the New Tomb Raider? Articles behind these titles are usually garbage, but because the headlines play just the right psychological tricks, they attract tons of clicks.

Clickbait does bring in short-lived traffic boosts, making it tempting for legitimate publications to give it a shot. Sometimes they'll generate their own clickbait content, but other times they'll simply slap a clickbait title onto a genuine article to get the best of both worlds. As a writer, you know how painful it can be to see your work resting beneath a greasy clickbait headline.

Good writing deserves a good title, and if you do headlines right, they can bring in readers in both the short- and long-term. With a little effort you can craft better headlines that play on the same "gotta click now" impulse as clickbait, all without the sleaze.

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Steps to writing a good headline

I hate the top-down approach of listing the elements of a good headline and hoping you internalize the information and figure out how to apply the principles to your writing. Instead, let's approach this from the inside-out.

Each of the items below is a step you'll take when coming up with a title yourself. Sometimes it's an active step, like writing the article, but other times you'll simply stop and think. Run through the steps and repeat them as often as you like. The more familiar you are with them, the better the results will be.

There's no such thing as the perfect headline, so don't waste time chasing that unicorn. Just make it good.

Step 1 - Know the purpose of a headline - Headlines summarize the article and entice readers to explore what's inside by offering a strong emotional hook. Keep that in mind as you sit down to start researching or writing.

Step 2 - Write the article - You can't summarize content if the content doesn't exist. Write the body and circle back to the headline at the end. If you try to force-fit your article into a pre-written headline, the article's quality will suffer.

Step 3 - Maintain the tone - What's the overall feel of your piece? Is it a review of a game you hated? A news article you're excited about? Keep that same tone in the headline.

Step 4 - Think short, think strong, think enticing - Great headlines are easy to understand, brief, and hook readers with the promise of an interesting piece of writing. A great headline I saw recently was "Battletoads Review - A Shallow Swamp." Those five words told me everything I needed to know, and they hooked me hard enough to earn a click.

Step 5 - Start boring, then spice it up - There's nothing wrong with a dull but informative headline. Seriously, don't break your brain trying to come up with just the right phrase. Get something boring down as a placeholder, then do some brainstorming and drafting and more brainstorming. If nothing comes from this, go for bland, go for cheesy, go for SOMETHING: Super Mario Galaxy 2 Review - It's-a Me, Space Mario! (Eye-roll, right?)

What to avoid with your headlines

There are a few easy mistakes people make with headlines.

Don't ask yes/no questions - If you're asking a yes/no question in your headline, your conclusion is one-note and boring.

Don't make jokes or try to be clever - Don't try to be funny in your headlines, and don't rely on memes or jokes to connect with readers. You risk your joke falling flat or going right over the reader's heads, and that's a bad start.

There's a fine line between trying to be funny and being funny. Walk it carefully.

Avoid controversy and outrage - If your title aims to get rage clicks, you're writing clickbait. Stop it. If you have to write about a controversial topic, stay neutral and present objective, verifiable facts. A good example of what to do: Sega Removes Controversial Character From Bare Knuckle 3 On Mega Drive Mini 2.

Don't use headline templates - There are plenty of template structures you can use to build basic headlines. Most of the time these create clickbait titles or headlines that sound like they came out of a corporate roundtable.

Don't be vague - If you're afraid to give away so much information that people won't click on your article, maybe your article doesn't actually offer that much information.

Creating excellent headlines will take time and practice, and you may never reach a point where top-notch titles fall out instantly. But just the fact that you want to write a good headline and not slap a lame clickbait title onto your work puts you ahead of the pack. That drive will also keep you and your work ahead as the months and years go by.

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