Jason Falls is picking on me

Some people write newspaper articles. Some people write essays.

Newspaper articles have 85% of the story in the first paragraph.  If an editor has to cut paragraphs, the bulk of the story is intact.

Essays have 85% of the story spread through roughly 85% of the paragraphs, leaving the remaining 15%, including the point of the essay, for the rest of the paragraphs. Frequently, the point is contained in a pithy statement in the last line, forcing a reader to get to the end, pick up the key, and reread the essay saying “Ah!” and “Now I get it” and “How thoughtfully clever.”

Newspaper articles are written for skimmers and for deductive people.

Essays are written for readers and for inductive people, people who are willing to live long through an experience and then, afterward, say, now I understand.

I write essays.

That’s a perfectly acceptable thing, I think.

And now Jason Falls comes along and picks on me.

“Write good headlines,” he said yesterday.

But that would give away too much of the essay, I reply. It would ruin the clever surprise. I want people to read to the end to understand the story.

But Jason said, “I … subscribe to 350 other blogs and make efficient use of my time by skimming headlines looking for an inviting post.”

And suddenly I realized that he is right.

If I write enigmatic headlines, forcing busy people to read all the way to the end of the essay to get the point, I will keep people from even starting the essay.  If I write generic headlines, I keep my friends from being able to get their friends to read what I write.

As I thought about Jason’s point, I realized that my “8 ways” posts get attention. In fact, of my top ten posts, six of them are “8 ways” posts. Not just because they are list posts, I don’t think, but because I tell you in the headline what is in the post. (Like 8 ways to encourage a friend.)

Ironically, those are some of my best posts. The title reflects clarity in the posts as well.

So I think I’m going to try what Jason says: Take the time to actually craft a headline that might catch a reader’s attention and give a reason to read.

I’m guessing that this one catches his.


16 responses to “Jason Falls is picking on me

  1. This is a tricky one. I spent a long time writing headlines that would describe what the post was about to attract attention and help readers to find them. But after a while I feel a little… nauseated… by the predictability of blog headlines. I feel like I can’t write any more like that any more.

    I think when / if I go back to blogging I’m going to break a lot more of the rules.

    Of course it depends how the blogging fits, who you want to reach, what it means to you, whether it matters if 1 or 10,000 read… and so on…

  2. Good point to consider…but, it’s so hard to give up the punchline.

  3. I would agree with Jason as well. There is too much content to be clever about your content delivery. To be honest, loading your article/post/blog/essay with a surprise is putting a barrier in front of your reader. When is the last time you read 50 pages of a book before it grabbed you?
    I’m trying (in vain it seems) to write shorter and more concise blogs, not an easy thing for me. However, I did learn from high school writing assignment that the outline of my piece needs to be set in the first paragraph and restated at the end.
    My gotcha is clever headlines like “Absolutes Shouldn’t Be” and “Social Media Success Takes Forever”. But I’m a creative director, I’m pretty good at headlines. Editing my own writing, not so good!

  4. LOL…knowing Jason fairly well, I’m guessing you’re right about that last sentence. **snicker**

    There’s no one right formula for headlines. There are dozens of effective formulas. Heck–90% of Copyblogger’s best early material was finding and outlining all the different ways you can do a great headline. There’s still something to be said for building an irresistible mystery with your headline. Find the formulas that work for your particular writing style and the kind of readers you want to attract.

    You know what will teach you to write great headlines better than just about anything? Looking at a message board index page. Because a message board index page is nothing but a list of clickable headlines–with a visible number of views right next to each one. If you look at enough of them, you’ll see the patterns. The formulas that work with that community emerge pretty quickly. 🙂

  5. Never caught that one. Heh.

    And, frankly, anyone who knows who I am probably caught it, too. Well done.

    There’s nothing at all wrong with good storytelling. I like to think I practice good storytelling in many of my blog posts. But fewer people read the story if that headline doesn’t draw them in.

    Keep in mind that in today’s search and browse-friendly world, your “audience” isn’t made up of who you think they are. Loyal readers probably only comprise about 20 percent of your audience. The rest are coming in through search engines or referral links because someone recommended your content. Help get more of those people – new readers and traffic – by giving them a zinger that grabs their attention.

    And saying ‘Jason Falls Is Picking On Me’ is a sure-fire way to get some eyeballs.

    Good job. And good post, too.

  6. Joanna. I’m starting to think that maybe I think about the headline as a tweet version of the post. And I understand breaking rules. When I look in the mirror, my headlines come from laziness, often as not. Or from the insecurity you scold me about.

    IF? what do you mean IF?

  7. Damond – but this post was a test for myself to see if I could do a headline AND a punchline. And at least sometimes, it works.

  8. Michael: “There is too much content to be clever about your content delivery. To be honest, loading your article/post/blog/essay with a surprise is putting a barrier in front of your reader.”

    This is brilliant. thank you for this concise summary.

  9. Kat – the key in what you are saying is “building.” the reason that this is such a scold to me is that I spend time writing and then I presume on the good will of readers to ignore whatever words I happen to put in the headline. Not always, mind you. But way too often. I will never find a formula, nor do I want to. But I gotta be about being attuned to the people I want to talk with. And help them out…and in.

  10. What a lovely post. I’m horrible at thinking up inviting titles too, which probably hurts me.

  11. Jason – You do tell stories well. I will agree.

    I thought, as I wrote, that this is a linkbait kind of post. But it is more of a proof of concept/public confessional kind of post as well. I forget about the other readers. I forget about helping people know where to start in reading. Your post was an earflick to remember audience.

    So thanks. And I’ll see you at SOBcon.

  12. Harumph!

    LOL! I have been picking on you forever, and yet, Jason Falls gets the juicy headline!

    I love the way you write, Jon, and the only change in your writing I will support is MORE of it!

  13. Love it! I’ve been working more intentionally on this aspect of blogging. I know when I get slammed, I pick and choose what is most interesting based on the headline. These days, most folks are slammed.

  14. i’m learning. Thanks Cheryl