An American Editor

November 25, 2019

On the Basics — Techniques for effective headlines

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:15 am

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter,

Owner, An American Editor

Several years ago, one of my freelance projects involved writing, editing and proofreading a company newsletter for a business that made printing presses. Not only was it fun to work on something about printing presses (even if it included articles about things like employee birthdays and bowling league scores!), it gave me a chance to use my high school and college French, because the company had offices in both the USA and French-speaking Canada.

The best part of the project, to my mild surprise, was writing headlines for articles, or rewriting headlines for articles submitted by employees. At some point during the couple of years of that project, my client said I wrote the best headlines he ever saw. A rewarding and appreciated compliment, but one that puzzled me a bit — it hadn’t occurred to me that headlines were that big a deal.

But they are. The headline, of course, is what grabs the reader and pulls them into the story. An image helps, but it’s the headline that makes someone actually start reading; that photo and caption might be all someone bothers with if the headline isn’t strong and engaging.

Headlines should be lively and attention-grabbing, relevant to their articles, and … The best headlines include strong verbs, although many publications use incomplete thoughts.

This topic came up during Gateway to Success, the 2019 Be a Better Freelancer® conference of Communication Central and NAIWE, and recurred to me when I found myself adding to a blog post headline while I was still writing the post. At the conference, we were remembering and chuckling over classic newspaper headlines like “Headless Corpse Found in Topless Bar.” For my blog post (watch for it in the next week or so), I started with “The healing power of work” and, after writing the first few paragraphs, added “… social media and — oh, yeah — the cat.” It can’t compete with some of the classics, but it’s better than my original version.

Why the changes?

The text inspired the changes as I was writing it. This might not be a factor in a hard or breaking news story, but for a feature or blog post where you have the luxury of time to expand and revise, something in the text that can often turn an accurate-but-routine headline into one that works much better.

Second, even I found the brief original version a little blah, and I wrote it. It also struck me as a bit confusing; I wasn’t writing about anything medical or psychological. It seemed to call out for a little more depth or detail.

I’m not very good at writing humor, but this was a case where a tangent in the article turned into a headline with a humorous twist, and I like to think the change caught the interest of more colleagues than the shorter version would have.

I often write my headlines before I start to write the article (and I always include a headline in anything I submit to a client). That goes against the tradition at many publications, especially newspapers, where the copy desk writes the headline after the reporter submits the article. I find that writing at least a draft headline helps me organize the story and find a focus for the lead/lede sentence. If I’m stuck on a headline, I might start writing anyhow, but that usually tells me I need to think about my main point and purpose for the story and reorganize my plans for what I want to write. And writing my own headlines reduces the likelihood of having one appear with a typo!

What works in headlines?

If I remember right from my one undergraduate journalism class and year of graduate work in journalism, a headline should be as short as possible to relay the heart of the story while still catching the reader’s attention. The longer the headline, the fewer people will probably read not only that element but the story it’s about. In today’s over-media-ed world, keeping a headline short and tight is more important than ever.

The ideal is to use the active voice, although that isn’t always possible. Another ideal is to use the same format throughout the publication (or post), although I’m seeing publications that don’t follow that guideline, even on the same page: full sentence vs. phrase, etc. Headlines don’t have to be full sentences, but they do have to be clear and easily understood.

Yet another ideal, and one I see violated a lot, is to use the same style for headlines throughout the article or post. In my book (so to speak), all headlines should be bold and sentence case. If the client’s style calls for title case, fine — all heds should be in title case. Recent newspaper pages have had heds in sentence, title and all-caps style all on the same page! I know consistency has been called the hobgoblin of small minds, but I think it should rule in many instances, and headlines are one of ’em.

Capital approaches

A classic headache in writing headlines is when to use caps. The decision to use title or sentence case is a style matter or publication choice. My personal preference is sentence case for headlines, because that emphasizes any names or other formal elements that do get capped, and it has a smooth visual flow. Title case also looks choppy and blocky to me. And I really dislike seeing prepositions capped, especially two- or three-character ones just because they start a new line of the headline.

My biggest peeve is one that goes against several of the standard style guides, which cap prepositions of four letters or more. I think we should be consistent based on parts of speech rather than number of letters in a world. That preference makes sentence case even more practical for headlines. And being consistent in how we style a part of speech is important to reducing reader confusion. Capping based on the function of the word is more logical than on the number of letters in one of those parts of speech; such inconsistency is a disservice to readers.

Do you write headlines? What is your preferred style or “voice” for them? Give us a heads up on your headline philosophy!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), in 2019 co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com). She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

1 Comment

  1. A couple of “not to do” examples:

    Not everyone will know who this, and those who don’t recognize the name won’t read the article. Provide some context!

    That first line is about as boring a headline as you could imagine. Most readers would respond with “So what?” unless they read the deck, which is the real news. Give your readers a reason to read!

    Like

    Comment by An American Editor — November 26, 2019 @ 1:36 pm


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