How to Undertake a Futile Quest for the Ultimate Headline

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Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Odd title…’, and you’re right. It’s one of those make-do-and-mend things. One of those occasions when the best you have got is far from ideal, but it is still the best you have got. If I’m completely honest, I should really have called this post How to Make Your Nipples Explode with Delight if only I had the courage. But, of course, I did not. Now don’t panic! I have not started to write a tawdry salacious tract about the sex lives of the elderly. My next post will not be called Fifty Shades of Wrinkly Pink and Grey. I do not have it in me. My adjectival range is not sufficiently broad. No, I can explain. It happened like this…

…It started last week when I was just preparing my little salmagundi for the week – titled, in my usual minimalist (lazy) way as ‘Dreams’ – when a missive from WordPress appeared in my inbox suggesting that I avail myself of a little service designed to help me create more attractive headlines for my outpourings. I presume that they believe the modest titles I have a tendency to use could be usefully souped up, giving me increased pulling-power ‘readership-wise’. Now, I must admit that it struck me that it would be nice if a gathering of my readers required something bigger than a phone box – if such a thing still exists – for their annual get-together. If a little tweak to my titles might mean that I could go ahead with my plan to hire the Albert Hall then I might as well give it a go. So I looked and, with the usual missionary zeal I feel at such moments, I fully embraced what it had to offer me. It offered me a little box into which I typed my title before it told me, with a score out of one hundred, how effective it would be at drawing in the reader. I carefully typed in my proposed one-word title and presto! I scored zero. Oh well, time was short and, to be frank, zero is pretty much what people expect from me, so I decided to go with it anyway. But I was just about to push the ‘publish’ button when I caught a little snippet on the news about the on-going soap opera that has become the life of Woody Allen and I remembered an early film from the Allen canon, for no other reason than it once made my grandmother laugh so much that her lunch-time cream of tomato reappeared out of her nostril. So I shamelessly borrowed from it, swapped ‘Dreams’ for ‘Sex’ (story of my life) and popped it into the little box. ‘All You Ever Wanted To Know About Dreams, but Were Afraid to Ask’ scored 72/100 (Oddly, the more correct ‘Everything you ever… etc. etc.’ scored only 66/100 – I should have taken this as a warning.) Anyway, the die was cast, the post was published and I moved on… Except I didn’t. I worried whether, given time, I couldn’t have come up with a much better title. This is what I spend my life doing when I really should be doing other stuff.

I realised, too late, that I had slipped into dog-with-a-bone mode and that I would be trapped there for some little time. Would it not, I reasoned, be a great idea to come up with a killer title first and then write a post around it? My capacity for distraction has developed with age and has become something that I spend my whole life fighting against. My propensity to follow any unmarked diversion that becomes available through to its inevitable dead-end is almost as great as my facility for getting lost on the way back. In short, this became the ideal means by which I could divert myself away from what I intended to waffle on about onto something that that might just, after a reasonable length of time, lead me onto something else to waffle about. I am irresistibly drawn away from whatever it is I should be doing, towards whatever it is that stops me from doing it. Willpower is falling away from me as quickly as core-strength and the ability to nap without dribbling.

I tried to decipher what constitutes a good headline. It has apparently the right balance of common words, uncommon words, emotional words and power words. I downloaded a number of lists and, I must admit, I was more than a little confused as to what made the ‘common words’ common, the ‘uncommon words’ uncommon (I never have understood whether it’s toilet or lavatory) and where the ‘emotional words’ finished and the ‘power words’ began. Undaunted, I picked a random jumble from all four lists and threw them at the screen and ended up with How to Discover the Fundamental Principles of Writing a Sensational Headline without Worrying the Mammoth, which I typed in and awaited my expected 90 plus. It scored 59. Better than zero, but still not guaranteed to draw in the punters. I thought it might be a good idea to lob in a couple of ‘depth-charge’ words, and so I tried Brexit – How to Discover the Fundamental Principles of Writing a Sensational Headline without Worrying the Trump, but that scored only 51. I was clearly misunderstanding the system. Undaunted I continued to pump in headlines that became ever more fanciful and began to approach the word-count of a novella. My scores continued to fall. I was forced to take radical action – something that no man ever wants to do: I read the instructions. It became immediately apparent that in order to achieve a good score, I was actually looking for an ideal length of only six to eight words. Miffed at the loss of two hours during which I had been writing ever-lengthening titles that contained more nonsense than a typical Manic Street Preachers lyric, I tidied the word lists (tore them up) and filed them carefully away (jumped up and down on them in a monumental fit of pique). I was about to head downstairs for a small restorative single malt when an even more exciting idea entered my head. What would the analyzer make of the titles of great books?

As a distraction, this ranked even higher than inventing nonsensical sentences of three long-lost nouns, two dozen obscure adjectives and no verbs – they don’t seem to score very highly. However… Thinking about it, I realised that most great novels are saddled with titles that fall well below the ideal word count, but never-the-less I pressed on, best I could. I plucked some titles that might match the criteria from the crumbling rockface of my memory. I started with Far from the Madding Crowd which scored a highly creditable 52 points, considering it is without doubt the single most boring book I have ever attempted to read in my entire life. (To anybody out there who shared with me the dual horrors of that ‘great English novel’ accompanied by The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales for GCSE English, I extend my very deepest sympathies. If, like me, it has scarred you for life and discouraged you from reading for years, I can offer only one word of advice: don’t go back and try them now. They haven’t improved.) The Old Curiosity Shop, despite its lack of length, scored a very similar 51. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although not quite Dickens, sounded like it might be worth a stab in these circumstances. It scored 62. Perhaps it required some relative modernity. I tried The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (66), So Long and Thanks For All the Fish (69) and finally Second from Last in the Sack Race (my latest re-reading) scored 71. Well, I was making progress, but I had no idea how. I stopped. I shook my head (it rattled). I considered my progress over the last couple of hours. I was clearly wasting time here. Settle down man. Write a blog. The title is unimportant…

I’ll just have a coffee and a biscuit.

…Which is when I stood and caught sight of a row of DVD’s, including a number of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That phrase popped into my head. I typed in My Nipples Explode with Delight and scored 69. I thought that would be great, but it was just upper-end-of-average. What was I looking for? And Now for Something Completely Different… scored 70 – purely, I assume, because it fell nicely in the word-count. How on earth could I improve this score? Of course. I remember reading somewhere that titles that pose questions or propose answers attract most attention. So How to Make Your Nipples Explode with Delight with a score of 83 became my benchmark: my way forward and my answer. Except that it was actually neither.

I was no closer to knowing what made a good headline, except that it needed to be six to eight words in length and it could possibly do with starting How to… And I was no nearer to writing my blog. It was all beginning to seem a little futile. Unthinkingly I typed in My Futile Quest for the Ultimate Headline. I scored 72. I remembered a little of what I had learned from this whole process. How I Made My Futile Quest for the Ultimate Headline also scored 72 but, finally, How to Undertake a Futile Quest for the Ultimate Headline scored 76. Well, it wasn’t exactly exploding nipples, but it was the best I had, so that’s what you got: not so much a blog as an old man’s spiralling descent into obsessive pointlessness – but, hey, that’s life…

…And in case you are wondering, this nonsense will stop here. The Headline Analyzer will be retired. The shortcut on my favourites bar will henceforward remain idle (until I finally get round to deleting it – if I can work out how) and in future my titles will remain short and unanalyzed. Much like myself…