Sam’s manifesto on why your blog sucks is worth the read. I thought I’d take the micro-approach and tackle one comparatively tiny thing: headlines.

What is a headline?

A headline is the title of your post. The best headlines, generally speaking, are short and descriptive. The worst are cute or clever and objectively fail to match the post’s content, like a bait-and-switch. I’ve written good headlines. I’ve written bad ones. Just like anything else, writing a “good” headline depends on your overall level of skill and what you want to accomplish.

But one thing’s for sure: the best headlines provoke an emotional response from the reader. Do new lawyers really get rich and famous by blogging, as the headline of this post says? No, generally not. But I bet you’re curious.

Examples of Emotional Response: Outrage, Curiosity, Fear

Don’t lie. You seek fame and fortune, just like everyone else. It’s up there with other powerful motivators, like love and fear. Like it or not, these things drive humans. Here are three headlines I’ve written with emotional response in mind:

How to Defend a Deposition: Just Show Up

This “how-to” headline trolls for outrage.

Is showing up really all it takes to defend a deposition? No. To be fair, I know that blog posts are not closely read—people scan headlines, headers, bullet points, etc. To be even fairer, vocal critics of the “just show up” message knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote their retorts. It’s not like they aren’t capable of close reading. They were capitalizing on the outrageous suggestion of the headline. See Jordan’s (justified) outrage for yourself.

Start a Law Firm in Law School

This headline sparks curiosity.

Of course you can’t actually start a law firm while still in law school, but you can take a number of substantive preparatory steps. My post could have done a better job fleshing out those steps, but the gist of the message is clear: Some law students, rather than stressing out about OCI, could do better for themselves by planning to hang a shingle. If you’re curious about that, like a lot of law students undoubtedly are—sorry for the presumption, but I’m going to presume—you clicked through and read the post.

Being a Lawyer Doesn’t Mean Long Hours

This headline addresses fear. It also suggests a solution to getting rid of it.

Will practicing law mean long hours with no end in sight, week after week of brutal 90-hour servitude? For most lawyers the answer is no. Many law students fear that to be the case—at least I did—so this headline addresses an underlying fear: the loss of friendships neglected, divorce, doom.

Why Care About Headlines?

Building a readership—and, by extension, your reputation—is a worthy goal for a blog (as opposed to using your blog as a direct marketing tool). But that doesn’t mean you can’t use direct marketing principles—crafting great headlines—when writing your posts.

Jon Morrow’s headline hacks, a cheat sheet for writing blog posts that go viral, gives you everything you need to start writing great headlines. Warning: if you’re a lawyer-blogger purist, you might break out in hives. Morrow says: “[S]kip the countless hours honing your writing skills …” That’s not good advice for most lawyers, who write for a living. But Morrow also says: “Just go straight to what works, and forget everything else.” When it comes to headlines, take his advice.

If I didn’t write for Lawyerist, a great headline probably wouldn’t make that much difference. But great headlines (just like great book titles, blog posts, content, etc.) still matter. It’s not like every Lawyerist post gets shared on Facebook more than 1,000 times just because it’s a Lawyerist post. Andy’s headline made a difference, along with the content itself. But if you flop, you flop. It doesn’t matter what platform you’re writing for. I flop all the time. Sometimes I don’t. And it’s the “don’ts” that matter.

Just as not every lawyer needs a blog, not every lawyer-blogger needs to care much about headlines. These lawyers say, “Who cares if my blog gets read?” If you don’t care about readership, you’re writing a journal. You’re journaling, with your legs scrunched up in bed, musing to yourself about your latest crush. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the public nature of blogging itself suggests an expectation that the blog—even if you don’t care if no one reads it—will still get read, at least by someone. And the conceit here is of course you care.

If you want to build readership for your blog, make sure the titles of your posts—the headlines—are just as good as the content.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/noodle/2426856582/)