The most important words in any blog post, article or essay are the first ones. These are where you grab your reader’s attention or lose them. And in case you were wondering, these words you’re reading right now? They’re not the ones I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones that formed reason you’ve clicked on this link and read this far. The words I’m talking about are the title.
Now I’ll immediately admit the title of this article was clickbait. I personally don’t like them. At the same time, I can’t deny that listicles work. Even though every time I see them they annoy me, I can’t help being curious. What five things, I wonder, will grab my attention? Will reading this article improve my writing? Will I learn something new?
And that is immediately tip number one.
Now you might be able to be more subtle about it than this. Or you can go the other way and be even more obvious. The “And you can’t believe what happened next,” or, “What happened then nearly made me cry” variety of clickbait seems quite effective. Now I truly loathe these and have stopped clicking on them out of principle (and seeing how quickly they vanished after initially appearing, so it seems have many other people). Still, the underlying idea is sound. Your title doesn’t need to just inform, it needs to intrigue. Manage that and your post will at least provoke plenty of clicks.
If you’ve only got bait you’re just feeding the fish. To make fishing work you need a hook. That’s what your first paragraph is for. And it needs to work fast. These days the average attention span is a little over 8 seconds. So you’ve got to spend almost as much time on your first few lines as on your title. Paint a picture, make a claim, surprise them, or amaze them. Whatever you do, don’t bore them. They’ve probably got another eight pages to click through if you do.
And now the information comes in. This is where you actually tell people stuff about whatever you used to draw them in with. Obviously, your information has to be interesting. That can mean it is informative, that your style is engaging, or – preferably – both.
The internet has its own style. “One style,” I hear you cry, “Aren’t there thousands?” And obviously you’re right there. The thing is, some of those styles are successful and many of them are not. The ones that generally don’t do well use complicated language, long sentence and speak in the third person. Want to know what works better? Short sentences, accessible vocabulary, first and second person (as in “I” and “You”) and making the reader feel like they’re part of the conversation.
How do make them feel like that? One way is to ask questions. Don’t you feel engaged? Okay, you might not want to overdo it. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Another strategy, of course, is to pretend the reader is talking with you, like I did at the beginning of this section. That’s right, only writers and prophets get to pretend people who aren’t there are talking to them. Everybody else gets locked up.
I suffer from this one myself. I’m not good with images. They’re not my thing. I use my words to paint pictures. I don’t want to go through the trouble of finding an image to go along with it! But that’s a poor person’s strategy (as in, if you use that strategy, you’ll remain poor). We writers might be word-oriented, but most people are not. They are visual creatures and appreciate a well-chosen image. And let’s be honest, an image can really enhance an article. Add to that that most sites use a photo that you’ve used in your article to promote your post and you can see how vital they are.
So don’t select it last and don’t rush it. Take the time to find an image that compliments your words, because otherwise chances are no matter how good your words might be, they’ll end up collecting dust in one of the dark corners of the internet.
I hope that I have not made you regret giving in to my blatantly manipulative clickbait title. Though chances are that if you’d have been long gone by now if you did, in which case my moment of vulnerability is far too late.
‘Vulnerability’, by the way, would have been my sixth listicle item had I had the space for it. I would have talked about how as a writer you need to be human, humble and down to earth if you truly want to connect with your audience. But since I don’t, I’ve cheekily hidden it in my conclusion. I wonder if my editor will notice, or if she has already clicked on to the next tab instead.