Are You Writing Headlines for You or Articles for Them?

I have been at this blogging thing for a long time now, and would like to think there are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way. There is a challenge I’ve been reflecting on recently, and it’s one I want to share with other writers: There is no necessary correlation between how many times people click on an article and how useful it actually is to them. It is no great feat to create the kind of headline that will get people to your site. What is much harder is to create content that will actually benefit them once they get there. And in that light, I want to put out a call to my fellow Christian bloggers to commit to putting quality ahead of quantity, to putting your readers ahead of yourself.

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I believe Buzzfeed very nearly ruined blogging when it mastered the ugly art of clickbait—articles whose foremost purpose is to generate revenue. The distinctive feature of clickbait is that it is defined by its headline rather than its content. The idea is to create a “can’t-help-but-click” headline even if the article it leads to is inaccurate or unhelpful or almost impossibly stupid. It uses headlines with provocative adjectives—stunning, amazing, unbelievable, shocking. It promises that it will blow your mind, that you won’t believe your eyes, that it will revolutionize your life. It offers “8 Shocking Somethings that Will Something Your Something.” You know it when you see it, but somehow can’t help but click it.

Many Christian bloggers, perhaps inadvertently, took Buzzfeed as an example of blogging done right and began to imitate it. When I open my RSS reader each morning and browse the headlines from the 250 or so blogs I follow, I know that a good number of them will follow this format. I know I’ve used it many times myself. Of course it’s great to have a great headline, but these ones come with a cost—they force a certain kind of format. The author is forced to write an article that is organized ordinally and chopped into short sections. Gone are the reflective and deeply personal columns and articles of days past, and in their place are dry, bulleted lists of steps to take or actions to carry out. Want to be a better parent? Just run through this quick list. Want to have a better devotional life? Follow these eight steps.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that kind of format, and sometimes it’s just the right choice. If you’ve learned five lessons on prayer from H.B. Charles, it may be a great way to summarize and convey them. If you want to give some quick tips for date nights, then by all means, bullet point 50 of them. But as often as not, I believe this format is ineffective for both readers and writers. It can foster lazy writing, allowing the writer to work around the great challenge of a building an article that is coherent and cohesive in favor of one that is disconnected and bulleted. It can be condescending to readers when it suggests that anything in life is easy or that anything is easily solved by skimming a few quick calls to action. It is ineffective in the lives of readers precisely because it is often lazy and condescending and trite.

Ultimately, articles like these are most often not meant to serve the reader, but to serve the writer. They are not meant to inform the reader’s mind or touch the reader’s heart, but to help the writer gain clicks or platform or whatever it is they are after. Buzzfeed didn’t discover and perfect the format for the good of their readers, did they?

This clickbait format is very good at bringing readers to a site, but, except in limited cases, very poor at serving them once they get there. This format brings immediate statistical results but, I’m convinced, very little long-term benefit. We sometimes talk about the decline of blogs as if an external factor caused people to stop visiting them, but maybe the actual problem is that we bloggers adopted a poor format and drove off our readers. Maybe we’re blaming Facebook when this one is really on us..