Start your titles with a verb to make them stronger; or reflections on titles, filler phrases, and my life as a gerund

Instead of using a generic title (ex: Top 10 Ways to …), pick your strongest point and put that in the title as a clear recommendation.

Now that I’ve gotten that promised tip out of the way, here’s the reflection that prompted this post.

Many bloggers focus on improving their titles as a way to encourage people to click or share. Having repeatedly run into the limitations of my blog searches and index, I’ve been thinking about blog post titles as a way to make my blog posts more memorable – both in terms of retrieval (remembering what to look for) and recognition (recognizing it when I come across it).

That’s why many of the usual title-writing tips don’t appeal to me, even if they’re backed by A/B testing. List posts? A focus on new or exclusive information? Mysterious headlines? While writing a post called “10 New Emacs Productivity Tricks That Will Make Vim Users Hate You – #2 Will Save You Hours!” is tempting to consider as an April Fool’s Joke, that kind of title is useless for me when I’m trying to find things again. Any title generic enough to come out of a blog post title generator is too generic for me to remember.

Fortunately, there are plenty of role models on the Web when it comes to writing clear, specific blog post titles. Lifehacker somehow manages to do this well. Most of its posts start with a verb, even when linking to a post that doesn’t, and yet it doesn’t feel overbearing.

Here’s a sample of Lifehacker titles for posts that summarize and link to other posts (ignoring posts that were original guides, product links, or fully-reposted blog posts):

Lifehacker title Original post
Re-Read Old Books After a Few Years to Gain New Perspective How you know
Agree On a Special Signal So Your Colleagues Can Reach You On Vacation 11 Valuable Tips for Handling Emails While on Vacation
Find the Best Thrift Stores Near You Using Zillow and Google Maps How to Find the Best Thrift Stores in Your Area
Find a Hobby by Rekindling Your Childhood Passions 7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose
Conduct a “Nighttime Audit” to Sleep Better How to Spend the Last 10 Minutes of Your Day
Get Your Ideas Out of Your Head to Start Improving Them 6 Lessons from Pixar that Will Set You Up for Success
Focus on Discipline More Than Motivation to Reach Financial Goals Forget Motivation, This is the Key to Achieving Your Goals This Year
Give Yourself a Creative Game Each Day to Boost Inspiration The Importance of Personal Projects
Fix Your Bluetooth Audio in Yosemite With This Terminal Command Commands to Make Yosemite Suck Less

Fascinating. Of the nine posts I looked at, all of them rewrote the titles from the original blog posts so that they started with a verb, making the titles more specific in the process. This makes sense in the context of it being a lifehack, of course. The concept has action at its core.

I like the new titles more. I can imagine that remembering and linking to the Lifehacker-style titles would be easier than linking to the original ones.

Most of my posts don’t quite feel like those, though. I noticed that most of my titles start with gerunds: thinking about, building, learning, exploring, experimenting. I think it’s because I write in the middle of things, while I’m figuring things out. I don’t feel comfortable telling people what they should do. I share my notes and let people come to their own conclusions. Starting a post with a verb seems to be too direct, as if I’m telling you to do something.

That said, filler phrases like “Thinking about…” aren’t particularly useful as part of a title, since the reflection is a given. But changing “Thinking about how to make better use of Yasnippet in my Emacs workflow” to “Save time with dynamic Yasnippets when typing frequently-used text in Emacs” doesn’t seem to accommodate the exploratory bits, although it could be a good follow-up post. Changing “Minimizing upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes” to “Minimize upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes” feels like I’m making a value judgment on skewed sketchnotes, when some people might like the fact that an upward skew tends to feel happy and optimistic.

So I use nouns or gerunds when reflecting (which is self-directed), and verbs when I’m trying to put together other-directed advice. This helps me differentiate the types of posts in my index and in my editorial calendar admin screen, and it also signals the difference to people as they browse. You might not be interested in my reflections and prefer to focus on tips, for example, or you might be tired of tips and want journal entries instead.

That works because those types of posts are generally quite separate. When I want to help someone learn a technique such as sketching quick ribbons, I don’t go on an extended tangent about how I learned how to do that or how I want to improve. When I’m thinking about how I can improve my delegation skills, I don’t expect someone to patiently go through all of that in search of three concrete tips to help them improve. I think that as I gain experience and become more opinionated (the latter probably being more related to this), I’ll write more advice/instruction posts, possibly linking to those personal-experience-and-reflection posts instead of going on internal tangents.

In this post, I’m experimenting with a verb title while doing extensive self-reflection. It feels a little odd, as if you started a conversation with someone and then proceeded to talk to yourself, idly musing out loud. You’ll have to tell me if I should never do that again, or if there’s a way to manage the balance. But it also feels odd to use my part of the conversation to tell you to do stuff, solely drawing on other people’s research or recommendations, without sharing my context so you can tell if something that makes sense for me might make sense for you. I figure there are plenty of other people out there who want to tell you what to do with your life, and I’m not completely fond of that approach anyway. And it also feels odd to natter away about my life like a self-absorbed ninny, making you do all the hard work of translating ideas into things that you can actually use. I still haven’t completely figured out how to make personal blogs more useful for other people.

Could I make an idea sandwich: summary and research at the top, personal reflection in the middle, call to action at the end? Maybe that could work.

Still, I want to do something with my titles so that I don’t end up with lots of “Thinking about …” and “Exploring …” and “Deciding between …” that blur in my memory. My ideal for these reflection posts, I think, would be a clear, concise summary of the key insight (perhaps saving it as an excerpt as well, if it doesn’t fit in the title). If I followed that up with an other-directed post with a crisp title that started with a verb, made the recommendation, brought in some research and observations, and linked to my reflection, that would give me a good, logical, memorable, useful chunk that I could share with other people.

Right. That makes sense to me. If I address you with a direct verb or “How to …”, I should deliver a post that requires minimal mental translation for you to get good tips out of it. If I clearly mark something as a reflection, you know what to expect. I tend to remember them as actions I decided to take (“The time I resolved to…”) or the particular new thing I came to understand. I can take a few minutes to update the titles and summaries accordingly, which could help me years later when I’m trying to make sense of things again.

In Buckminister’s somewhat strange book I Seem to Be a Verb (1970), he wrote:

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

A verb seems too definite for me. I’m a gerund in at least two senses, I think: reflexive, the way “I read” is an act but “reading” is a noun that lets us talk about itself; and in the process of doing, not done.

Do you write other-directed posts that offer advice or instruction? Consider lopping off “How to …” and “Top 10 ways to…”. Start with a verb and give one clear recommendation. Do you write self-directed reflections? See if you can harvest the ideas for other-directed posts, and perhaps invest a little time into making your posts easier for you to remember. Do you write a mix of both, and have you figured out a good flow? I’d love to hear what works for you.