Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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Drumroll please, ta da!

Gosh, I’m really sorry. I have your attention now, but no big news to tell. I just want to see what happens when I use a big hook headline: any spike in readership? Two comments on this blog advised me to write catchier post titles, as a way of attracting readers. I’ll let you know whether this experiment works, but meanwhile I want to talk about the same scenario in workplace writing.

You may not write headlines at work, but you probably create document titles, chapter/section headings, and subject lines on letters and emails. These are all opportunities to catch your reader’s attention and encourage them to read your document, even to read it more thoroughly.

So how do you come up with a title or heading? Do you recycle material written by other staff in your organisation (possibly past staff)? Do you use the same dry material that you used at university, or that you read in a textbook? Most writers use a functional or informative approach. In the first case, the writer bases headings on the function of the material that follows—for example, ‘Background’, ‘Method’, ‘Conclusion’, ‘Recommendations’. The reader knows the purpose of the upcoming section because the heading tells them. For an informative approach, the writer presents facts, data or proper nouns in the heading—for example, ‘Costs and benefits to the community’, ‘Trends in government spending’, ‘The Regional and Rural Change Study—a pilot program’.

Sometimes, a writer can use a combined approach. The heading ‘Case study: Canada’ tells the reader both how the upcoming material functions (to show an idea in action) and what it’s about (Canada). All three approaches—functional, informative, combined—can tell your reader what to expect from your writing. But you want to do much better that that: you want your reader so hooked that they immediately read your document. You don’t want your reader to delay reading, to skim read, or to pass on the document to someone else. In other words, you want their full attention.

So, how can you write a good hook?
1. Keep it short.
2. Avoid a lot of nouns, and try to include a verb.
3. Ask a question.
4. Use familiar pronouns (‘we’ for your organisation, and ‘you’ to mean the reader).
5. Try alliteration (for example, ‘All about animal associations’).
6. Skip the jargon and use plain English.
7. Use minimal capitalisation (save capitals for proper nouns only).
8. Add some punctuation (perhaps a colon or em dash) if you need to break up longish text.

See how I’ve revised the following headings using the above tips:

Title: Insights into Mental Health in Subsets of the Australian Population Everyday ups and downs: how Australians are thinking and feeling
Title: A Report on Packaging Design in the Personal Hygiene Industry 25 creative packaging designs that sell the product for you
Heading: ‘XYZ Finance Company Insurance Schedule’ → ‘Details of your insurances with us’
Heading: ‘Cost and benefits to the community’ → ‘How will the changes affect your community?’
Letter subject line: Re Regulation 345 Part 9x Clause 5(a) → Help for your business to comply with Regulation 345 part 9x clause 5(a)
Letter subject line: Process for disputation over building contract 45869 → Invitation to discuss building contract 45869

Sometimes, the law requires you to use certain wording. You may have to stick with ‘Product disclosure statement’, for example, although you can add a subheading that acts as the reader hook (‘What you need to know about this product’). Like my trick upfront in this post, blogs can give you ideas for how to tweak heading language and punctuation.

Of course, don’t get too crazy with your headings. You want to expand your readership, not narrow it. So stick to language and topics that appeal to your readers, and maintain your authority/brand. While the following title certainly caught my eye, it repelled me rather than engaging me: How green were the Nazis? Nature, environment, and nation in the Third Reich. On the other hand, I love the following title of a box of map cards: Go explore Sydney: themed walks and adventures. The title instructs me (I have to explore more), intrigues me (What themes? What adventure?) and informs me (The cards map out Sydney walking routes).

So don’t just cut and paste your headings. Think about how closely they pull your reader to your text. And my final tip: whatever you say in your heading or subject line, address the matter immediately, in your first paragraph. Don’t waffle through some background material first. In other words, once you catch a reader, keep hold of them!