Headline writing seems simple, but any journalist knows that it can be one of the most difficult skills in the writing process, because the importance of a headline is huge. All some readers will ever read of your piece is the headline. A headline can draw readers in, scream ‘don’t read this’ with its banality, or completely misstate the actual story that follows. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a short sentence.
Here are some of the tips on headline writing we have gathered over the years to help take the pressure off headline writing.
What a headline needs: Appeal and accuracy
Appeal for a headline is necessary because you want to draw people into your story to read it. This can be especially true for business writing which is often stereotyped as ‘boring.’ Appeal can be achieved in a lot of ways, such as using lively language, word play, apposition, puns, etc., but be careful not to focus so much on the appeal that you put out clickbait rather than an accurate headline. As much as metrics matter, a headline should not be misleading just to get readers to click on it.
Accuracy is crucial to the validity of your writing and the validity of journalism as a whole. No one likes opening an article just to find that the headline was completely misleading to the points of the piece. That is not good journalism and does little to keep bringing readers back to your work. If a reader is only reading the headline, make sure they are able to get an accurate reading of what you are saying.
The best way to achieve appeal and accuracy at once is to look at the core of your story and think about why people should read it. What do you want readers to take away from your piece? If someone is only reading the headline, what do you want them to know? That idea is your headline.
Start simple, and build from there
A headline should convey the proper tone of the piece. An investigative piece should be more factual than sensational, and a headline about layoffs should be careful not to sound celebratory, let alone dismissive of the humans involved.
The headline should add its own value to the story. You want to create something new rather than using sentences or quotes verbatim from the article you have already written. Remember, you want to capture the spirit of the article while not giving away the entire piece. You also don’t want to be so coy to what the piece is about that people scroll right past. Give the reader a hint of what’s to come if they click on your headline without repeating exactly what’s in your article.
If you ever have headline-writer’s block, remember the simple headline formula: subject-verb-object. Isolate the main action in your story, and extract the main actor(s), what they are doing or hope to do, and what is their target. Then add adjectives and other descriptions – sparingly – to make the headline lively and unique.
Final checks for your headline
If you’re unsure whether the headline you came up with is any good, do a couple of quick checks. Start by reading it out loud to yourself. Sometimes words can sound good in your head, but once you read them out loud they can convey something completely different. This is one of the best ways to read your own work as if you were someone else.
If it still sounds good out loud, run it past someone else like a friend, roommate, or coworker. It can be helpful to ask someone who hasn’t read your piece what they think the story is about based on the headline alone. This can be a big giveaway if your headline is true to the story.