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When you’re done with an article and are searching for a good headline, do you find yourself saying, “Why is it so hard to come up with a quick phrase to sum up this article?” One of the hardest parts about writing a story isn’t actually writing the story itself; it’s coming up with an effective headline. To make the process easier for you the next time you write an article, use these tips to help you:
1. Less is more : keep the headline short
People have pretty short attention spans, and on websites like Watchdog Wire, there are dozens of stories to click on. This means a visitor might only look at your headline for a second or two before their attention gets diverted somewhere else.
To get your point across quickly, limit the number of words in your headline, keeping it short and concise. It’s pretty easy to put together a long sentence, but a good headline doesn’t necessarily need to be a complete one. All you need to do is catch the eye of the reader, who is most likely just scanning for something interesting. If a headline rambles on, they may lose interest without even clicking on the full story.
Don’t Say This: “Watchdog Wire wins the title of best news website after competing against similar organizations”
Say This Instead: “Watchdog Wire rated best news site”
2. Capture emotion
You need to draw the reader in and connect with them. One way of doing this is to capture the emotions of your audience. Try tailoring your headlines to reach emotions such as fear, love, anger, sympathy and greed. People tend to react to stories that portray these feelings–after all, no one reads a website because they want to be bored. There are, however, a few emotions that you should avoid: hope, indifference and pride.
Don’t Say This: “School board meets, may decide changes later”
Say This Instead: “Big changes considered at tense school board meeting”
3. Be accurate and specific
A headline is designed to give the reader a general but clear idea of what the rest of the story is about. It is important to include a few details from the story within it. Headlines tend to be sensationalized in order to draw attention, but if you want to keep a readers trust, they must also be accurate. Pick out a couple key words and use them within your headline. When you think you’ve got a good headline, ask yourself, “Will people know what the story is about by reading this headline?”
Don’t Say This: “Crooks arrested at city hall”
Say This Instead: “Three city employees arrested, charged with tax fraud”
4. Don’t repeat your lead or “hook”
A common mistake people make when trying to sum up an article is the use of using the same words that can be found are in their lead sentence, or “hook.” It’s good to have a headline that relates to your lead without sounding redundant. If you feel it is important to mention the same person or concept in both the headline and lead, try to come up with an alternative way of saying it. The headline acts more as a sneak preview of what’s to come, where a lead sentence is designed to set the tone and engage the reader.
Don’t Say This: “Watchdog Wire sat down with Mayor Ben Franklin for an exclusive interview”
Say This Instead: “Mayor Franklin: His vision for the future”
5. Use action words
Another common problem writers run into is a lack of action in their headline. Because the majority of stories have already happened, we tend to use words with a passive tense that make it seem as though the story is over. By using action words, we can make a past event come to life in a headline. Examples of action words are “falling,” “stopping,” and “balancing.” There are other good action words that indicate an event has already happened; words like “voted,” “ruled” and “projected” are good examples.
Don’t Say This: “New taxes discussed by mayor”
Say This Instead: “Mayor promises additional tax increases”
6. Revel in your words
Depending on your story subject, you should take some liberty and get creative. Try to craft your headline to reflect the mood of your story. If there’s an interesting fact, work it in.
There are limits to fun and creativeness, though. The use of puns can be tricky. As a general rule, try to avoid puns unless the irony is too much to pass over. If you try to stretch a pun too far, you’ll just confuse your readers–and may even prevent them from clicking on your story.
Creative Headline: “President: ‘I’ve never used a computer’”
Example of bad pun: “Cuomo spanks Weiner”
If you have any questions or need more guidance with your headline writing, don’t hesitate to contact me at Adam.Ulbricht@franklincenterhq.org.
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