Think “Headlines”|Jill Lublin

We live in a world of headlines. Headlines are the labels that tell us what articles are about and help us decide what to read. Like their cousin the sound bite, headlines are informative shortcuts for people who don’t have time to read, or even scan, the whole story. In one quick line, headlines are supposed to succinctly inform readers what the story is about.

Learn to write great headlines. Besides being a valuable publicity tool, learning to write terrific headlines will force you to sharpen your focus, clarify your objectives, and deliver messages with the greatest clarity and impact. Before you write a headline, answer these questions:

  • What is the story about?
  • Why are you telling it?
  • Who are you communicating to?
  • How do you want them to react?

Characteristics of Great Headlines

Clarity. If your headline doesn’t clearly describe what your story is about, it won’t attract its target readers, which means it’s failed. Readers must be able to get the message on the first pass—it has to jump right out and grab them. Few readers will spend time figuring out unclear headlines; they’ll turn their attention to other items. When readers read headlines they want clear information, not puzzles.

Conciseness. This is essential because most people won’t even read long headlines. As it is, most readers simply scan pages for keywords that alert them to matters that interest them. When a headline grabs them, they think about it or read further. If a headline is long, most people won’t read it all; they will move to another item. Long headlines are counterproductive because readers might as well read the opening sentence or paragraph, which most won’t. To write concise headlines:

  • Summarize your material in one sentence. This sentence can be as long as you wish.
  • Scrutinize each word in the sentence.
  • Underline each word that’s essential in getting the message across.
  • Circle each word that isn’t essential in getting the message across.
  • Rewrite the sentence without the circled words.
  • Examine each remaining word to determine if it can be improved.
  • Put the headline aside at least overnight and then reexamine it with fresh eyes.

Cleverness. Clever, witty headlines attract attention. But, watch out! Drafting clever, catchy headlines can divert writers from the main objective of the story. They can be seduced by their wit and forget the headline’s purpose. In their desire to create amusing headlines, writers can fail to clearly convey their message. They also may fall victim to the sins of being too cute and cloying. Never sacrifice clarity in order to be clever.

Cleverness can be elusive. Often, writers draw blanks and can’t come up with clever headlines. When that occurs, and it will simply compose clear and concise headlines. Make your point and move on! With narrow-column newspapers, newsletters, and such, keep headlines to two or three lines.

A great way to try your hand at writing headlines is by asking friends or family members to cut headlines from a newspaper and place
them in an envelope. Have them seal the envelope and give the newspaper and sealed envelope to you. Read the “headlineless” stories and write your own headlines.
Compare the headlines you composed with those that originally ran with the stories. Decide which you prefer; note the reasons why and the particular techniques that appeal to you. Continue this exercise for at least five days until you feel adept at writing headlines.

When it comes to writing headlines, writers take different approaches. Although the following suggestions are time tested and seem to work for most, don’t be afraid to strike out on your own and experiment with different methods. However, if you’re just getting started, it may be advisable to first follow these suggestions and then branch off:

Write the headline after you’ve completed the piece. Writing stories usually crystallizes your thoughts, resulting in sharper headlines. If you write the headline first, you risk making the story fit the headline, which is opposite to how it should work.

Draft at least four or five headlines for every story and let them sit. After you’ve taken some time away from the process, the right one should jump out at you. Although sometimes they will all stink and you have to write a second batch.

Ask someone for help. Have a friend, relative, or whoever happens to be around with you and brainstorm. Come up with buzzwords and angles to take, bounce your headlines off them, and see what your combined efforts produce. Everyone thinks that they can write great headlines, so give them a chance to help you out.

When you’re stuck, change gears. Often your approach to writing a headline doesn’t work because the idea is limited or unsound. If you try to force it, you will only get more frustrated. When that occurs, abandon your original approach and try something new. Ultimately, the best method for creating a headline is whatever works best for you.

Headlines are meant to provide order by informing us what the article is about. Readers have become very headline oriented and expect headlines to catch their attention. The best headlines are clear, concise, and clever. Headline writing is a learned skill that requires lots of practice.