13 reasons why clickbait headlines are bad

Against bad headlines, the writers themselves contend in vain?

I browse various websites quite frequently. Yes, I should be doing ten thousand other things, but reading an article now and then is good for me. We all need breaks, right?

There is actually a lot of good content out there, if you know how to look for it. One sad thing, however, is that pretty much everyone gives them really horrible headlines. Even good articles shoot themselves in the foot with bad headlines that are clickbaity when the article stands up on its own without the need to stoop to clickbait.

I'd like to tell you about what frustrates me with this and I will offer a few tiny tips on how to maybe do things a little bit better. And yes, you actually can do better, even if you yourself don't think that you can.

It introduces garbage into the headline while weakening the article.

The list of items is a very common headline pattern. Pick a number and write a bunch of things that support your headline's thesis. This article is actually based around exactly that, though with my spin on the idea.

Thing is, the precise number of items should not matter. If your argument requires precisely N points to make it work, then you might have done it wrong. If you can make your argument work with one point, good. If you cannot make it work in less than ten thousand points, fine. Both of those extremes are not great, but at least they don't put weight on the completely irrelevant number of points that are being made. If it matters that there is a specific number of items there, you have done something wrong.

I'm not saying that having a number in your mind is a bad thing. I write articles aiming for ten thoughts or examples. I don't do this because I like the number ten. I do it because it produces a good chunk of content and it fits my busy schedule decently well. If, while writing an article, I decide that it would work better with eight, twelve or twenty items, fine. And either way, I won't go advertising it. I don't need to, it has no impact on the content. "Ten thoughts on CSS minification?" Ugh.

I try really hard not to write lists though. A list is one of the ugliest ways to deliver content, full of abrupt changes of direction. Can't give a decent flow to your ideas? Throw it out the window, create a numbered list and call it a day. Easy to do and some poor sucker will click on it anyway.

Except, you see... You actually can write a list that is cohesive and has flow, though most people don't bother. Here is an easy way to tell know if a list is good: If the order of the items in your list is completely interchangeable then you might have just committed a piece of garbage. Change things until the order matters and your list will be at least an attempt at a cohesive whole.

We have a very similar story with step-by-step guides, actually. Even if you think that your guide is best executed as a read-do checklist, you still don't need to draw attention to it being one right in the title. You can drop the number and the word "steps" from the headline.

I'm not saying that having good structure is easy, I struggle with it a lot myself. I'm saying that a premature capitulation won't help you grow as a content creator and does not maximize the amount of beauty in the world.

It doesn't start out with a goal of bringing about positive change

And speaking of the world, I want to change the thing. Not in a disruptive way, but more of a zebraic way. I'm a joyful, slow and steady kind of a person, my sense of humour and love of mockery notwithstanding.

Even wielding my stripes, changing the world is a big task and I am likely to fail. This almost guaranteed failure will hurt, as failing at something important should. It does not mean that I should give up, nor does it mean that I should stop putting my best effort towards this. I am dedicated to my task, even though the odds are grim.

You don't change the world by doing what everyone else is doing. This isn't changing anything, but just reinforces the status quo. In words of William Deresiewicz, "Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that's heading toward the cliff".

I want to change the world. It is scary, painful, hard and requires something creative and new.

You might still succeed, but you are not giving yourself the best start possible by starting off with following the trends. Yes, there is money in it. Yes, people will maybe click it more. But, by the end of the day you have at least perpetuated the status quo a little bit more. It may be that you are happy with it, and if you are this kind of person than I am happy for you as well.

I wish I could be happy with just taking the easy and the obvious way. However, I am not this person and I could not live like that. I'd actually be afraid to be that person, such is my wish to at least try to accomplish something great.

It lacks courage and does not stand up for itself

One of the methods you are supposed to use to create headlines is to pose a question.

Kinda like this: "Do headline analyzers actually work?"

Ah, yes. It seems like you are posing a question. I am quite sure then, that you have made adequate provision for replies and discussion?

No, of course you aren't doing that. You have an opinion and you are going to present an argument about why exactly you think your opinion is valid. You already have an answer, but for some reason didn't put it in the headline.

About the most you can expect from such a post is a comments section, but you are unlikely to pay attention to it anyway, rather busying yourself with writing another shovelware article with a clickbait headline.

So... How about you do the intellectually honest thing and just state your view in the headline? You are entitled to your opinion, but if you pick a side then you should own it and wear it with pride. Stand by what you do. Courage, my friend. Courage.

Headline analyzers that people use don't really work.

It wouldn't be a Remy article if I didn't spend some time experimenting with the technologies available out there. Let's take a look at a Prominent Headline Analyzer and how it analyzes things.

There are many cookbook suggestions on how to divide up the words in your headline. You need to have common words, uncommon words, emotional words and power words. All this in some proportion, not too short and not too long and with an emotional sentiment, preferably positive one. All this is understandable and could yield a few decent headlines. I'm not sure if I'd call them great headlines, but you can, in theory, wrest a decent one or two out of those rules of thumb.

The problem is that the headline analyzer in question is pretty dumb and does not actually understand what you are doing.

Take the word "like" for instance. Must be an emotional word? Here's a headline: "I'm, like, tired.". The generator has "like" classified as both an emotional and a power word, when in this context it isn't used like that at all. Either the analyzer is just looking at each word separately or using crutch words became both metal and heartwarming when I wasn't looking. If so, obviously, that's like, basically, what I'm literally doing from, like, now on.

Then there is the sentiment analysis. "Torrential diarrhea at your wedding is not awesome" gets classified as a positive sentiment headline. Yes, I too would be quite overjoyed having the runs while getting married. In my home town we force-feed the happy couple with prunes on the night before the ceremony. Makes the whole thing so much more memorable and exciting. Jokes aside, I don't think the analyzer noticed the "not" before the "awesome".

It gets worse. Here's a headline: "I'm HIV-positive, won't live long". If you haven't felt at least a bit sad or uncomfortable at this headline, you might lack a heart. Sentiment analysis returns this as positive sentiment, but paradoxically does not recognize any emotional words. Well, I guess the emotion is not in any one word, but in the combination. That's just beyond the analyzer's power. To be fair it is designed for checking the word balance, little more. Content spanning many words is beyond it.

Furthermore, the thing does not recognize "I'm", "won't", "live" or "long" as either common or uncommon words. Huh? Finally, it does find a power word in the headline. Can you guess which one? If you guessed "won" then you win a cookie. Yup, this thing does not handle contractions, breaking them up into separate words. The "won" came from "won't".

You could also sort the words in the headline and it will score exactly the same. Also and could exactly headline in it same score sort the the the will words you. Garbage in, awesome score out. I dunno... I'm not saying that using heuristics is all bad. I'm just saying that I would not trust something that uses pretty crude ones, such as ignoring the word order and everything that exists between the isolated words in the headline.

I'm not even saying it can detect wit, wordplay, cleverness, cultural references, jokes or sarcasm. It fails much sooner than that, botching the basic parsing of the sentence and treating your input as a bag of words.

For some things it might be better to trust a human than a crummy heuristic. Oh, Hey! Guess what? You are a human! Have some faith in yourself, eh? If you can do better than a middle schooler with a dictionary, I think you can write a good headline. You were born with a beautiful brain, use it.

Closing thoughts

Good Gods, please think and try to do something novel, for once.

Refuse to be assimilated. Do your own thing.

Practice makes perfect, and I'm not just repeating folk tales here. It actually does.

Yes, I know how many items are on this page and how many I promised in the headline.

I have, in mockery, used a clickbait headline to create this post. Even doing it as a satire sucked and gave me much more issues with flow than usual.

If this becomes a popular post, I think I'm going to flip all of the tables. All. Of. Them.

Writing articles in list style is horrible. I feel like I'm going to get a cerebral hemorrhage. Please donate so that I can pay for my inevitable brain surgery[*].


(Donors get to suggest topics and can request early access to the articles that resulted from those suggestions.)

[*] Joke's on you. I'm Canadian and my brain surgery would have been free anyway. You can still donate though. :P

Yes. I'm cranky lately. This time of the month again: Unemployment. Grrr.

Half-pound peanut butter cups are awesome.

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