1. Headlines: A Copywriting Art Form
For decades, newspaper Editors have struggled daily--multiple times daily!--to tweak and polish and squeeze every possible unecessary letter out of a headline without making it lose its punch. Whether seeking out the drama of a short but sharp hook or whittling down the WhoWhatWhereHowWhy of a story into a line (or two, if the by-liner or story is big enough news), the Old School Newspaper Editors have held the market on communicating much with the least number of characters. In printing a paper--not online but actual, smelly paper with ink from a printing press--an Editor has to count every fraction of every "inch-column" and allocate and reallocate character by character. He can't waste story space on a wordy headline.
So how do they do it? How does anyone "do" art? It's a talent. Sorry if you thought I'd reveal some deep, dark secret to making magical headlines appear out of thin air. Oops.
Coming up with effective headlines is but one of many talents a journalistic editor has. They don't make the best editors of fiction because their brains aren't wired for the breadth and luxury of novel-length storytelling. They're wired for taglines, slogans, dramatic (or melodramatic, in the case of rag mags at the supermarket stand) and not-necessarily accurate story leads. They write hooks. They aren't trying to tell you the whole story in the headline; they're selling the story with the headline. Subtle but distinct difference.
I'd kind of hoped to get an "expert guest" to chime in here, but I ran out of time to contact Robb Grindstaff, whom many of you know from Authonomy and are following on Twitter (@RobbWriter). Now that he's retired from his 30-year career as a newspaper Editor to be a full-time grandpa, he's trying to launch an independent fiction editor business. If you know him or follow him, please RT the link to this blog entry to him and ask him to come chime in on the comment thread with his expertise.
I don't have a secret wand (or magic chicken) you can wave over your words to make them effective headlines the way Robb probably does--after 30 years, he can probably do it in his sleep--but I do have some good references for learning to write more effective copy. Try reading up with some of the following.
- My favorite destination for copywriting? You guessed it! Copyblogger has a really great series (Copywriting 101) with two installments on headlines.
- How to Write Headlines that Work, which goes over different kinds of headlines, and Writing Headlines that Get Results, which actually dips into the journalistic approach a bit more.
- Copyblogger even has some "templates" for headlines in the Magnetic Headlines series. Are you starting to understand why I am so totally addicted to Brian & Sonia's Copyblogger site?
- Another great source of truly effective headlines is the entire advertising industry. I can't link to an industry but think about it. Slogans used in adverts are headlines. Really short, really effective headlines that hook you in and make you actually buy a product, never mind just wanting to read more. My favorite sources for advertising industry news are AdAge and Advertising Week. While neither has an explicit tutorial on how to write effective headlines, just peruse the effective headlines all over these sites--assuming you can get past all the blinky-flashy pictures. It's advertising, after all. They have to do the blnky-flashy. It's a requisite.
- I don't know if Jay Abraham is actually the "World's Greatest" anything but he sure did put together a great list of 100 Headline Writing tips here. I found the list through Dick Larkin's Yellow Page Commando site where Dick actually has a handful of fairly good "do's and don'ts" on headline writing here.
2. The Vocabulary Matters - Twitterspeak
Okay, so you've spent an hour clicking through list after list of headline-writing tips. You think you are ready to start tweeting the most attention-grabbing headlines out there, but there's one thing you're still missing. Maybe. Or Maybe you already know how to do this. You must rewrite your copy to convert it from grammatically-correct English (or even "Salesspeak") into what is called twitterspeak.
What is that? Yeah, you knew it was coming. The dreaded abbreviations and shortened words and made up symbology that permeates the twitterstream. You don't have to speak or write that way all the time. Maybe when you're texting because, hey, with the virtual keyboard, it's hard enough to mash normal human-sized fingers onto tiny virtual keys for 140 key presses. Don't press your luck.
Twitterspeak abbreviations aren't hard but for "grownups" -- that is, adults over the age of say 40, who grew up before this stuff became the "norm" and who did not adapt to it in college nor even in their early 30s on the dating scene -- this stuff does not come naturally. You really need to practice it, especially if you don't know more than one or two acronyms without looking them up. Don't feel badly if you didn't jump on board sooner. It's simply because texting and sexting weren't standardized when you did it (LOL). Cell phones were still too expensive and Web 2.0 didn't come online until the turn of the century (umm, that's the 21st century, you know, the one we're in? Just checking). Plus if you weren't getting sex out of it, what was the point of doing it in your 20s and 30s?
So for those of us over 40 (I'm 50 so I qualify as an old fogey, I think), it's like learning a whole new language that our brains have spent half a lifetime telling us is "wrong." On Twitter, however, it's not just "right"; it's critical. You cannot effectively community in the twitterstream without using twitterspeak. You'd have to tweet five messages, 140-characters long each, just to have a normal conversation. That's just not how it works. Sorry. You'll be viewed as a nuisance...one of those followers, the #everyonehas1followerwho person. I still @reply with 2-part msgs but I'm getting better. Okay, onto the lists and tips.
3. Pulling it all Together - Having the SAME Conversation
In an earlier installment of this Twitter Series, I discussed Authenticity. Review that if you haven't read it before. You need to really set your attitude deeply into place before you start changing your typing style for tweeting. Otherwise, you'll come off sounding ridiculous. I also went over the 3 Basic Tools (#hashtags, @mentions and DMs). Be sure you recall how #hashtags and @mentions work. Incorporating them into the natural flow of your sentence (or tweet) is exactly like seamlessly incorporating links into your web copy. The more links on a web site, the more visible it is to a search engine bot. Likewise, the more #hashtags in your tweet, the more visible you become to others who are already in the conversation or want to join in with you.
Remember, the point of twitter is to Join the Conversation not to sell your book to every person on Earth, no matter how much you dream of that at night.
You know I have to mention Mashable in a post about social media; like Copyblogger, Mashable's one of my go-to resources! Yep, Pete Cashmore has a great little list of 66 Twitter Terms. I think he could've added 3 more and gotten better SEO results but that's the snarky headline writer in me, I guess.
Some of the most-commonly used--or should be used--are "u" for "you" and "ur" for "your" or "you're." As a member of the Spelling Pohlice, I cringe at every usage of "ur" for masking the homonyms, but it is necessary if you're going to trim a communication down to 140 characters. Another homonym pair sharing a single substitution is to use "2" instead of "to" and "too." I tend to only use 2 for to....and I do indeed dangle my participles in a tweet, shaking my head every time. I also use a 2 instead of any word with the "to-" prefix, including 2day! Then there's a follow-on to that: using "4" instead of "for" or "four" or any word with the "fore-" or "for-" prefix. I'll automatically use "Cya L8R" (see you later) or "ppl" (people) but I don't use much else. That's my style. Authentically. You should (shd) do as much or as little as feels authentic to you.
I don't get quite so much into the twang (twitter slang) but I do try to understand it. RT for retweet which is when you click one of the built-in tools to send someone else's post into your twitterstream--including showing their avatar (or avi) with the post. Doing a manual RT or "quoting" the tweet so you can add something or trim it down to make room for a comment is called a modified tweet or MT. I've taken to eliminating nearly all punctuation to save characters, so I no longer use commas (*choke*) and I never put "RT:" or "MT:" anymore.
I used to put a pipe "|" in between my remarks and a clickable URL (link to a web address) but I decided that's a wasted character, too, so I stopped. I try instead, to place my URLs into the tweet where they make the most sense and are least invasive to the readability of my tweet.
And all of this leads well into the final thing I noticed I've been doing more and more of lately. I'm editing my tweets! I didn't at first. I felt the "authenticity" required me to be "spontaneous," but hey, have you looked those words up in the dictionary lately? They are not actually the same! Go figure. By editing my tweets, rearranging for readability and punch, and always trimming out those nasty extraneous characters I missed on the first pass(es), I can usually get a much better tweet in less than 140 characters, leaving room for someone to reply. You know, to have a conversation with me. If I consistently use all 140 characters, I haven't left any space open for anyone else to talk.
I do this in real life, I'm told, talk a lot, leaving no "space" for anyone else to get a word in (I'm just wired, trust me, I can listen, but I listen at 150mph and most ppl talk about 20mph). As impossible as it may sound, tweeting and learning to master the 140-character headline has taught me to be a better listener in the real world! Who'd a thunk? *grin*
That (probably) concludes this Twitter Series. For now, anyway. I've had several requests for a Tuesday Tip on SEO, but I'm not sure if I'm the best "expert" for that so I'll have to consider a guest blog. Maybe we can convince Jason Matthews (@Jason_Matthews) to make an appearance? Tweet him and ask him to come speak about SEO here on Webbiegrrl's Writings next Tuesday! :)
Cya next time for the Freebie Friday reads. Submit your book here if you want to be included.