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How to write a compelling title for your next DEV article

nityeshaga profile image Nityesh Agarwal ・4 min read

Writing the title of your article is a difficult problem, right?

So, let's do some first principles thinking and start from the basics without any assumptions:

Why do you need a title? What purpose does it serve? Select all that apply:

  1. Introduce the article
  2. Summarise the article
  3. Be a cryptic collection of words whose importance will only be understood when the reader reaches the end of the article
  4. Compel readers to read the article

Go on - make your pick...
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Well that was a trick question - the only right answer is 4:

  • A title's job is not to introduce the article (1). Your lead - the first couple of paragraphs - should do that job.

  • Its job is not to summarise the article (2). That's the job of the reader if he/she wishes to.

  • And it's not (3) unless you are a famous writer writing fictional stories.

When writing on the Internet, the title has one job - to intrigue the visitors and convert them to readers.

A good title is one that drives the visitor's curiosity enough to hook them and compel them to read the rest of your article.

Remember, the title is the only part of your article that 100% of the visitors read. If these visitors decide not to read your article, then all your effort of writing the article gets wasted, doesn't it?

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The Hurdle

Now we have a challenge:

How to intrigue the visitor without making the title sound like a clickbait?

Because the only thing worse than a bland title is one that sounds like a clickbait:

"You won't believe how FUN it is to stay fit on a budget of $5!"

"If you don't do this, you're headed for trouble!"

You must steer clear of them.

How you can overcome the hurdle

Some prominent bloggers admit to devoting upto 50% of their entire article-writing time just to craft a compelling title.

It's fine if you don't want to go to that extreme. But always write multiple headlines before deciding on your title.

Here are 2 tips to direct your efforts:

1. Learn from the digital marketing folks

Folks in digital marketing are concerned with presenting the business in a way that attracts visitors and maximises the time they spend learning about the product/service.

They write compelling headlines for a living.

Here are some of the lessons that you might hear coming from the mouth of a digital marketing guru:

  • write the title only you can
  • general is forgettable; highlight what's unique
  • readers want outcomes not articles
  • add a title image to bring life to your article

Keep them in your mind when you are crafting a title for your own article.

2. Play with the medium

It's time you let go of the restrictions placed on you by your middle school teacher:

  • "Keep your title to 5 words or less" - You are completely safe if you stay within 12 words. But use more if you're confident.

  • "No punctuations allowed" - You can use any punctuation marks that you want in your title. Commas? Sure. Dashes? Sure. Colons, paranthesis, periods or question marks? Everything is allowed!

  • "Use a simple phrase for the title" - Your title can be a complex sentence, multiple sentences or even a question.

Remove these safety wheels and play with your titles. Don't be afraid.

In the wild:

Here are the of titles of 3 of my favourite articles on the Internet. Let's dissect them:

Walkthroughs

Let me walk through a couple of examples to show you how to transform your titles:

  1. "Play instead of exercise" -> Not compelling. Give more info in the title.
    "Skipping with a jump rope allows you to stay fit without exercising" -> Interesting. Let's play with the medium and craft something memorable.
    "Jump rope is the new treadmill - I use it to stay fit indoors without exercising" -> Almost there - just a little too long. Let's do some restructuring.
    "I stay fit indoors without exercising - Jump Rope is the new treadmill" -> Perfect!

  2. "Why and how I used Kaggle to start my Machine Learning and Data Science journey and guide it" -> Kind of compelling but too long (18 words). Let's abbreviate "Machine Learning" and do a little restructuring.
    "Why and how I used Kaggle to start and guide my ML and Data Science journey" -> I was able to cut 2 words but it's still a mouthful. Also, we should make it about the reader (Remember - readers want outcomes not articles).
    "Use Kaggle to start (and guide) your ML and Data Science journey - Why and How" -> At 15 words, this is the title of my second most popular article ever!

Still not sure?

Comment below with your title and your draft/article. I would love to show you how you can transform them like this!


This article is a lesson in my email course - Clear Writing, Clear Thinking. I created this course to help young professionals learn how to write well so they can improve their careers.

You can sign up to get one 3-minute lesson in your inbox every week for free!

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