Title Trouble: do your articles need catchy titles or descriptive ones?

Having written articles for offline media and perhaps even more often for those online–my blog and my website being two major carriers of my writings–I have observed one question that quite haunts writers. What should the most important element in the title of an article be?

There are two possibilities here and writers often contemplate heavily between the two: catchy titles and descriptive titles. Which should one choose? In my opinion, this decision depends on various factors.

What kind of article is it?

The very first determining factor is, perhaps, the kind of article we are dealing with. Suppose the article is a work of satire, there is hardly any need to have a catchy title. Our title in such a case, while being descriptive, also needs to have a hint of wit and satire in it.

This is because such articles, while being fewer in number, require the reader to expect satire and not a serious examination of the issue in question. Works of satire no doubt also deliver an end result but it not quite in the same manner as do more serious, descriptive ones.

Articles of report and of reproduction of events ought to have titles that describe, if not the event itself, at least the scope of the event. And, perhaps as an alternative, we can also give them titles that highlight the concept or perspective from which we plan to examine the issue at hand in the article.

If the article happens to be a work of a much lighter order. Articles that, say, merely aim to entertain the reader and occasionally make him ponder (though not too seriously) then we will definitely be better off with a catchy title.

Another instance wherein such a title may be better preferred to a descriptive one is in articles of fiction and fantasy. These articles ought to hold suspense in mind and not speak of the suspense and the pivotal aspect around which the story revolves, lest it risk giving away a little too much. The aim, therefore, in such titles is to make the reader want to find out and ask himself, what might be that work which so lies behind this strange title?

Is it online or offline?

I have often observed, over the past few years of my writing, that articles being published offline happen to have requirements of the kind very subtly different from articles meant solely for publication online.

By this I mean articles of a very general character, those fit for reading in books or magazines and those which are not merely a matter of passing interest; those we find in books to discard, in newspapers and more than occasionally in archived pages of weblogs and static webpages.

These articles need to have titles that can be catchy and only slightly hint at their subject for the subject, it is needless to say, is already quite a buzzword.

The major difference in articles online and offline is the means by which they aim at driving readers towards them.

In case of an offline article, readers man arrive at them in one of two ways: recommendation or by chance.

If they arrive at it by recommendation, we can safely assume than the article will be read, regardless of the title. But, how came this recommendation? Surely, the recommender must have either stumbled upon it by chance or must have been recommended it. And following it thus, we come to the conclusion that, no matter how many levels of recommenders there exist, at some point, the reader of the article (assuming, of course, that the author himself did not recommend it) must have come across it by chance.

Now let us examine articles in media online. The ways in which a reader may come across this, thought much vast comparatively, can be broadly categorised into three: recommendations, purpose search and chance.

Recommendations are quite like we have seen in their offline counterparts: the link is provided and the article is read. Here, too, we have no problem with the kind of title we need.

However, in the next two methods, our title will play a pivotal role. By purpose search I mean the searches that may be performed on various search engines and through search boxes in various websites. And by chance I refer to the process of reading the title somewhere, say in some other website listed under the title of similar articles, or, perhaps over time, under the title of people who read this also read… and so on.

It is quite obvious in either case that the now famous term SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) plays an important role.

Search friendly titles

It is then important for us to first understand, quite broadly, how a search engine works.

A search engine is based on terms called tags. These can be assumed to be the backbone of the engine. These tags come from various sources, most commonly authors of articles and owners of websites.

For every article one writes, one provides tags, which are simply words or short phrases that represent the article. The idea is that is a person looking for those terms is led to the article, it must be worth their while.

Search engines therefore measure the closeness (or relevance) of an article by seeing how many (or what part of) the searched terms are also resent as tags in your article. The more the better, and the higher your position on the result page (called ranking.)

Now an important factor, one perhaps less known, is that this can, at times, bring up a sort of tie between two or more results. In such a case these search engines (being mere programmes that cannot think for themselves and therefore judge that your article is better than someone else’s) resort to ranking the articles based on the number of search terms present in the title.

Catch, yet descriptive titles?

This clearly means that a descriptive title helps much more in such a scenario and indeed in any online publishing that needs readers, at large.

While catchy titles do attract more readers, catchy titles with hardly any hint at the topic being explored are quite useless. And of what use is a catchy title when all it does is drown your article in the hundreds of search result pages?

The verdict, therefore is that, while catchy titles and descriptive ones both have their pros and cons, the scale tips very slightly towards descriptive ones.

The best then is to blend them much like holistic and reductionistic approaches are blended in physics. It is best, quite unarguably, to have a catchy title that also, even if very subtly, describes the subject under examination and–to inject a technicality–also includes at least one key word/tag in it.

So go ahead now and start re-framing your titles. Or perhaps you have your own vies regarding this crucial topic? Share it with us below.

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