If you’re right-handed, imagine someone telling you your life would be better if you wrote or threw a ball with your left hand.
It almost hurts to think about it, doesn’t it? Kind of flips your stomach as you imagine how ridiculous and awkward you’ll look when you try to fill out the line-up at your next softball game. That’s how I feel when blogging and copywriting experts tell us to “write the headline first.”
Ugh. That advice goes against everything I was taught in journalism school and practiced in a 30-year newspaper career. In the ink-stained world I knew, reporters wrote the articles, and copy editors wrote the headlines. It was the circle of life.
Important Stuff First
Reporters are taught to gather information — primarily facts and comments about the facts — and then order it from most important to least. It’s a writing style known as the inverted pyramid. Big stuff at the top, little stuff at the bottom.
Each day, editors considered all the articles being written and ranked them by importance. Important stories went to the top of page one, and the rest appeared in order of importance. Big stuff at the top, little stuff at the bottom.
I know many newspaper readers assume reporters write headlines. It makes sense. It’s the first thing the reader sees, so why wouldn’t the writer start there?
Headline Writing’s Creative Constraints
Here’s why copy editors, not reporters, wrote the headlines. Copy editors were responsible for designing the pages, and only they knew how much space would be allotted for a headline. Would the headline stretch the width of the page (six columns, at the time)? Or would it have to fit in three or four lines in just one column? Maybe two lines (decks, in newspaper-ese) and three columns?
Now throw type size into the mix. The bigger the letters, the fewer characters fit in the space. Part of the copy editor’s craft was learning to distill an article’s essence and make sure it caught the reader’s attention while constrained by space and type size. Oh, and by the way, don’t make the headline too short, and don’t end a line with a preposition.
Need More Space? It’s the Internet
Enter the internet, where there’s really no such thing as a space limitation, except in the length of Google’s search engine result titles. Now, you can focus on just the headline without worrying about fitting it into one column or 12. The critical criteria now? Will it attract attention and does it have a keyword or two to satisfy the search engines? Whether it fits is no longer part of the equation.
I get why many marketers encourage you to start with the headline before writing any article or “content.” There’s freedom in creating a clever headline and then trying to write an article to match. And the headline-first approach can help you stay focused.
But my old habits die slowly. I still prefer to collect my information, create an outline, write the article and then write a headline that best fits the article’s conclusion. It’s the natural order of things. Except for this article. For this one, I wrote the headline first.