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Writing Better Headlines: Simple As 3 + 3

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 11.29.23

Writing better headlines can pull more readers into your article or blog post. 

The best headlines, say writing gurus, use powerful words. They’re specific. And tried-and-true headline formulas have been shown to get solid results. 

But what about length … as in word count?

Writing Better Headlines with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #FreelanceWriting

Writing Better Headlines: The Short of It

The traditional view among writers is that a short headline is better. (Disclaimer: longer headlines are gaining traction in social media.)

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen champions writing better headlines by using a short, snappy format.

  • Short grabs attention
  • Short is easier to process than long
  • Short means less chance to misread or misinterpret what the headline means. 

Nielsen’s asterisk: a good headline is understandable, even when it’s short and even when it’s out of context. In other words, let’s say a reader looks at the headline and nothing else. Would he understand what the content was about and even its slant?

Short means you need to carefully pick and choose your words. Every word counts.

The First 3 and Last 3

The smart folks over at web analytics KISSmetrics confirmed Nielsen’s “short is better” mantra with a study. A short headline is scannable. Digital readers, they found, move quickly through headlines to pick and choose what to read. Skimming means readers focus on a headline’s first three and last three words. 

That’s where you should place your content’s keywords.

With short headlines, you’ve got fewer words to work with. They’re most important when it comes to pulling in readers. The principle is similar to a news reporter using an inverted pyramid format, launching into the most important information at the top of an article. 

Every word counts. Place your keywords in the first three words of your headline. Or the last three words. Or, preferably, both.

Every Character Counts, Too

Google typically displays the first 50-60 characters of a title tag. That means short headlines are useful in search results. If you keep your headlines to under 55 characters you can expect at least 95% of your titles to display properly – another plus mark in the “short is better” column. 

Check out these 6-words-or-less headlines. They use keywords at the beginning or the end or both. And each one has fewer than 55 characters.

  • Why Sugar Is Giving You Headaches (33 characters)
  • Six Sweet Dangers of Sugar (26 characters)
  • Why Sugar’s Bad For Your Job (28 characters)
  • Bad Mood? It’s From Doughnuts (29 characters)

Make Every Word Count

To sum it up, if you buy into the “short is better” principle, then writing better headlines means …

  • Use 6 words or less
  • Use 55 characters or less
  • Use keywords at the front end, back end – or both

That’s not to say that longer headlines are worthless. Far from it. But if you can wrap up a snappy headline in 6 words – one that can stand alone as a complete thought  –  then you can score big. Meaning you’ll grab a reader’s attention. She’ll scan your headline move her eyes into your content’s opening. Your headline will have done its job.

When it comes to writing better headlines, here’s the best tip: make every word count.

Check out How to Write Better Headlines, a quick, low-cost writing course by Nick Usborne. It's a super-fast (and super-affordable) way to build your headline-writing skills.

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