When you begin a new project, it’s best to start at – well, at the beginning, right?
Writing is weird. Sometimes you’ll start with a title and peck away at the keyboard all the way through to the end of the piece and that will be just fine. Most of the time, though, the beginning is the hardest part – and that includes the title.
Why Matching the Title and Topic is So Important
There’s an old writing trick that says you should start with the second (or third) paragraph of whatever you’re writing, saving the introduction for last. I remember using that method in school, and it was usually really helpful – it’s not until the end of that research paper, for instance, that you know what conclusions you’ll reach, although you’ll need to lay the groundwork for those conclusions from the very first words. Circling back to the beginning after you’ve finished a first draft of a paper like that gives you just the information you need to write the introduction that will get you where you need to go.
Writing for the web is a little like that, but (as we all know by now) it’s a unique beast. When writing for the web, not only is it important to have an interesting introduction to encourage further reading, it’s even more critical to have a compelling title. Without one, people won’t even click.
But – and this is a big but – you should absolutely not simply stick a click-baity title on an article in order to get clicks. Seriously, do not do this. That’s false advertising, plain and simple, and it breeds contempt. You know how irritated you get when you click on an article that, based on the title, you think will tell you X and then it tells you Y instead? How annoying it is to only find out that article isn’t what you were looking for when you’ve already taken the time to start reading? How you kind of feel cheated? (There are websites I refuse to visit anymore, no matter where they appear in search results, because I’ve been burned too many times. I’m lookin’ at you, eHow.)
The last thing you want is for potential customers to feel irritated as soon as they arrive on your website, so I recommend thinking about writing in terms of a silo.* Yep, those big cylinders on farms that hold grain. Their physical footprint is pretty small compared to how much they can hold. They have one rather specific job, and they don’t stray from it. They just do their job really, really well.
I suggest that you think about every piece you write in terms of having a small footprint – covering specific subject-matter “ground” – without going off-topic. Here are three simple ways to do that.
1. Write the Title First (Knowing It May Change)
I do this almost every time I write something for the web, whether it’s for my own sites or a client’s. Sometimes there’s a content plan or a brief I need to follow that will dictate a title, sometimes it’s just an overall topic. Either way, I often start with a title to get some direction for research and the initial writing process – but, the whole time I’m writing, I know I’ll revisit the title when I’m done.
Perhaps you’ve got an idea of what your (yet to be completed) research will show, and your title reflects that. When you’re done with your article, you might have reached a different conclusion. Maybe you started writing and it just went in an unexpected direction midway through. You’re happy with the end result, but the title no longer suits the piece.
The latter example happened recently with a post on the Seaworthy blog – Ian had a title and topic in mind, but when he got done writing we both realized the post was about something else now. We changed the title to match what was in the post, and we saved the unused title for another post.
Reviewing your original title idea is a must for maintaining silo content. Make it part of your editing process every single time.
2. Keep the Title in Sight While Writing
This is another thing I always do when I’m writing. Visual reminders are super handy, especially for someone who likes to go off on tangents (ahem, me).
When I’m writing in Google Docs, the title is always visible at the top of the page. When I’m writing in Word, I use a template that features the title in the header on every page. I’m looking at it constantly, making sure I’m always focused on delivering what I promised. I’ll peek at it as I start working on a new thought to ask, “Is this answering the question I said I’d answer in the title? Does it provide information the title said I’d provide?” If the answer is no, it goes the way of the delete key (or gets saved for later use on another article).
This isn’t to say that you should be frequently tweaking your title to match the paragraph you’re currently writing. That way madness lies. Editing is usually best as a post-writing task. (I’m not sure if they use different parts of the brain, but they sure feel like it to me.) What I’m suggesting here is that you use the visual reminder of your intended title or topic to rein yourself in if you start going astray.
Think of this method like the bumpers in bowling lanes for kids, keeping your writing out of the gutter.
3. Just Write and Deal With the Silo Later
Like I said earlier, writing is weird. Creative pursuits of all stripes are weird, really. They’re demanding and fickle. Sometimes I need peace and quiet to write well and other times I need uptempo music blasting. My best writing hours are much more predictable than they used to be when I first started out, but I still have days when I’m just not feeling it.
And that’s why I include this last suggestion.
When I’m already struggling to be creative, the last thing I need to worry about is another rule to follow. I’ll just write, sort of in a guided stream of consciousness way (meaning I’m loosely thinking about a given topic but not worrying about the order of the piece or the title), until I run out of steam. Then, I’ll move on to something else entirely – checking email, looking at Instagram, knitting, or even household chores. I save the editing for later, sometimes even the next day, when my brain and eyes are fresh. I read the whole thing and then start sorting it under sub-headers or into different documents altogether.
What I wrote is almost never useable as-is. It’s often a fantastic starting point for one or more articles, though, making it a valuable tool to get past a creative block. I love having a spreadsheet of ideas for future writing assignments, and some of the ideas on those lists come from this process.
YMMV, as the kids say – this doesn’t always work for me, either – but it’s a great option to have in your quiver.
How do you prevent false advertising when you’re writing? I’m always interested in learning new writing tricks, so if you’ve got something to add to my list I’d love to hear about it!
* Yes, we like structural analogies. And while this isn’t the same thing as a “content silo,” which is a way to organize a website’s content, it’s a similar concept.
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