Why Vagueness Causes Headlines to Fail

Carol Tice

Sean D'Souza: Why Vagueness Causes Headlines to Fail. Makealivingwriting.com

Sean D’Souza

By Sean D’Souza

The root of all trouble in your headlines is understanding that headlines aren’t some fancy words strung together. On the contrary, they’re simple words that are put together with a clear thought. But the point where it all goes kaput is our thoughts are kinda too vast.

What do we mean by vast?

Let’s take a topic such as: ‘Why article writing is the key’

But the key to ‘what?’

Most writers leave out the core detail. They miss out telling you where the article is going. And these writers don’t leave out the core detail on purpose.

They just don’t realise the importance of the core detail. And the core detail should usually contain what we’d loosely call a ‘target.’

A ‘target’ is simply ‘who or what are we speaking about?’

Let’s me demonstrate what I mean, by doing a little addition.

So instead of: Why article writing is the key…

We say: Why article writing is the key ‘to getting strategic alliances.’
We say: Why article writing is the key ‘to getting clients.’
We say: Why article writing is the key ‘to getting paid.’

Notice what happened when we put in that ‘target’?

First, it actually gave your article a solid direction. And hey, it did even more. It created curiosity.

Your la-la topic suddenly spruced up, brushed its hair, and put on a tuxedo.
And if you’re amazed at what adding a ‘target’ could do, let’s now add a ‘specific’ to that headline.

I’m going to replace just one word/one phrase at a time. And you watch.

Watch how the article literally swings from one side to another.

Example 1:
Why article writing is the key.
Why article writing is the key to getting strategic alliances.
Why article writing is the key to getting ‘active’ strategic alliances.

Example 2:
Why article writing is the key.
Why article writing is the key to getting clients.
Why article writing is the key to getting ‘higher-paying’ clients.

Example 3:
Why article writing is the key.
Why article writing is the key to getting paid.
Why article writing is the key to getting paid ‘in advance.’

So you see what we did?

We took the core topic.

We added a target.

We added one specific such as ‘active’ or ‘higher-paying’ or ‘in advance’.

And we instantly intensified the power of the headline.

Not surprisingly, the change in the headline did a lot more. It made the article easier for you to write. Without the ‘target’ and the ‘specifics’, the headline was weak, and the resulting article would be a soggy waffle.

But as we put in the ‘target’ and the ‘specific’ it actually forced you to focus on that specific, thus resulting in a mucho superior article. Instead of the article being general and vague, it’s now specific.

You’re either going to be writing about ‘article writing’ and ‘active strategic alliances.’

Or ‘article writing’ and ‘higher-paying clients.’
Or ‘article writing’ and ‘getting paid in advance.’

You’re most certainly not going to write about all three (not right today, at least!)
Because as you can plainly see, they’re three completely different articles, going in three completely different directions.

But when you have a vague headline, it’s almost impossible to keep the content of the article focused. When you have a specific headline, it’s darned impossible to go off track.

What’s more is that your audience is more focused too, because the rest of your article is delivering exactly what the headline promised. The specificity of the headline is what drew the reader in, and it’s the specificity of the rest of the article that will keep the reader reading.

And if you don’t believe me, remove those measly words…

Remove the specifics. Chop off the target.
Then write your article.
The headline loses power.
The article weaves, then stalls.
What’s worse is that the entire article becomes so much harder to write.

And even if you were to actually complete and publish the article, your reader would not experience a sense of clarity.

And you get that clarity with just two measly words.

The addition of just a measly word or two, and your article is vrroooming down the road.

And hey, in the right direction too!

To sum up:

Your initial thought is incomplete, because it’s too vast. It’s not easy to write about a whole topic. You have to get more specific.

You get more specific with two simple tweaks:

First you add a target. Then you add a specific. And tah, dah, you’ve now clarified the thought process.

As a result your headline will be stronger, and your entire article will be focused instead of rambling all round the countryside.

If you want more goodies just like this, there’s a report on Why Headlines Fail at Sean D’Souza’s site, Psychotactics. Get your own copy (yes, it’s free) and start to write headlines that really get attention.

What do you think is your best recent headline? Leave us a link to the story below…and we’ll see if we find it irresistible and have to click on it.


  1. Allie Fairbanks

    Thanks for the well-crafted insights, Sean. I coach writers, including copywriters who are just starting out, and this post provides a wonderfully clear way to start the headline conversation. I’ll use your name and your URL in vain with my clients so they know to look you up. Keep the great info coming!

    • Carol Tice

      I hope it won’t be in vain! His report is terrific.

  2. Samar

    I’ve been waiting for this post ever since I found out Sean will be guest posting here. I signed up to get Sean’s report – and then promptly forgot about it.

    This post has been one of the best I’ve read about headlines. It even rival the Copyblogger ones!

    Sean, you can bet I’ll be pouring over your report now.

    The one headline that did particularly well on my blog was ‘7 Steps to Editing Nirvana’


    • Carol Tice

      Nice headline Samar!

  3. Jen L

    Very helpful!

    I admit that I’m one of the worst headline writers I know. I think the copyeditors and middle-level managers used to groan when I filed copy back when I was a daily newspaper reporter. My headlines were, to put it kindly, very basic.

    Thanks for the inspiration

    • Carol Tice

      I was very lucky that at the first full-time staff writer job I had, they did not allow you to file stories with simple ‘slugs’ – you were required to write a headline. That’s turned out to be a good thing, now that writers all need to know how to write their own headlines!

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