You'll Never Guess What This Post is Ranting About

Is anybody else as fed up as I am by the trend of ultra-vague headlines and subheads on online articles? Upworthy made the format extremely popular; nearly all of their headlines or subheads are some variation on:


…will make you laugh, then cry

You’ll never believe #7!

What happened next will blow your mind

They didn’t exactly invent the idea of teasing the audience into reading more, but they definitely put their own unique stamp on the form and optimized it for social media sharing. Vague, but personal, headlines and subject lines were also popularized by the 2012 Obama campaign, which had unprecedented success rates with its email campaigns. The marketing world was slavering to learn what the Obama campaign did to generate such fantastic open rates, and part of the answer came down to their short, personal subject lines: “Hey,” “Check this out,” etc; the kind of subject line you’d write in an email to a friend.

Now nearly every marketing email that fills my inbox (and spam box) has a subject line like “Hey,” “Thought you’d like this,” or “For you.” Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is choked with articles whose meta-descriptions (the short block of text that appears below the headline) range from terse to nearly non-existent: “This will blow your mind,” “I couldn’t stop laughing at #4,” or  a simple “Heartbreaking.” And the more I see this, the less I click. Obviously the technique still works (or I wouldn’t still be seeing it everywhere) but it makes me wonder how long this trend will keep up before over-saturation renders it completely useless.


I used to click vague headlines like that because I wanted to find out what the article was about. Now I don’t click, because I’m tired of winding up on articles I have relatively little interest in. A good headline should tease the contents of an article, leaving something up to the reader’s imagination, to tantalize him into continuing reading. But a good headline should also give enough information to let the reader know what to expect — am I about to click through to a foreign policy expose or a video about baby pandas?

Writing an excellent headline like the one described above takes a lot of hard work and skill. It’s admittedly a skill I’m still working on — as my editor could tell you, after my numerous pleas for help. It’s especially difficult to write one for your own piece, which is why, within magazine, newspaper, and blog staffs, many times one person will wind up writing the headline for another person’s story. Vaguelining is a clever, and effective, trick, but maybe part of the reason I resent it so much is because it’s so easy. Anyone can write a vagueline. Maybe I just hope it goes out of style so I won’t feel so alone in the crowd of writers who struggle to craft good headlines.


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