How to Streamline Your Writing

When I was in college studying creative writing, one of the greatest challenges I faced was writing headlines. I’d oftentimes sit and stare at a blank piece of paper–computers were used only for the final draft back then–and rack my brain for the perfect, pithy one-liner.

Frustrated, I asked one of my professors for advice.

“If you focus on your headline first, you’ll get stuck,” she said. “Write your story and the headline will come.”

Eventually I learned that this is some of the worst writing advice I ever received.

Headlines are difficult to write because they are the most important part of a story. A reader will judge whether or not he will invest his time reading your work based on the headline. If that headline is subpar, the likelihood of anyone reading your story is significantly diminished, no matter how prolific the prose that follows.

Here’s a quick story to illustrate the “content first, headline second” fallacy:

I decided to take my professor’s advice for my next assignment–a paper on Macbeth. I sat down at my rickety second-hand desk and purposefully skipped over the headline, right into the story. Boy, was my professor right! I wrote and wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

By the time I was finished I had amassed what looked to be the the penultimate critical report on the play. It was full of fancy words and interesting allegories. I was proud. I even went over my page count, which I knew would impress my professor because more is always better (It isn’t. Don’t ever exceed the requested amount of content. Ever.) And just as my professor had advised, the headline practically fell from my fingers. “Macbeth: A Murderous Delight!”

However, in true Shakespearian literary fashion, that title would portend tragedy.

A few days later my professor returned my assignment; I couldn’t wait to read all of the positive feedback that was sure to adorn it.

Almost I immediately noticed the oversized “D+” at top center.

My heart racing, I furiously flipped through the pages.

The first note I saw was “Too erratic.”

Then, “Too scattered.”

And finally, “I didn’t ask for a book report.”

Cue heart attack.

Once the shock transitioned to depression, I gave the paper another read. My professor was right; the piece lacked focus. I had wasted hours writing a jumbled mess that consistently veered away from any central theme. Even the title was broad and meaningless.

It took me years to finally learn that the advice my professor gave me was wrong and that the headline must always come first.

The problem with creating the story first and the headline last is that it becomes much easier to travel off course quickly. The opposite is true when you prioritize the headline. A headline is your promise to the reader. It tells him exactly what to expect when he delves into the story. The headline also acts as your accountability partner–or foundation–ensuring that each word produced is relevant to your promise.

Starting with the story is like building a house from the top down. It just doesn’t work.

The headline I developed for the Macbeth paper was broad because I had to find a way for it to umbrella the vast landscape of what I had already written. If I started with a headline like “How Blood Symbolizes Guilt in Macbeth,” I’d have kept myself much more focused.

Now when I write a blog or article I take the time to sharpen my headline before moving into the content. While it’s still sometimes a struggle, the practice has improved my focused and significantly streamlined the writing process. It’s also saved me from seeing too many bloodied and battered manuscripts, which is the ultimate horror for a writer.

When it’s time for you to write, focus on a laser-sharp headline and be sure the content that follows stays true to your promise. Also note that the headline is not set in stone. The greatest writers will often tweak and fine-tune them before hitting the publish button.

How about some practice? I’m going to give you a basic idea, and in the comments section below, I want you to create a headline. I will then offer feedback.

Subject: Weight Loss for Middle-Age Women.

If you’re not feeling creative, simply “like” this post if you could use extra focus.

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