Writing headlines – tell the story, sell the story

Paula O’Shea is managing director and tutor of Brighton Journalist Works,

paula_o_s.asp2BODY.jpg
a training school for journalists. She is a former TV news producer with a background in local newspapers and local radio who has worked for the BBC and ITN.

WHAT TO DO

● Every headline should have an exclamatory impact, from ‘Three hurt in crash’ to ‘Government to end income tax.’ Present tense is almost always better than past tense.

● As headlines must TELL the story and SELL the story; usually this means you need an active finite verb - the forms of a verb where it shows tense, person or singular plural.

● Look to achieve maximum impact. ‘Council attacked over rates increase’ will make readers yawn, so prefer ‘Residents riot over 45% rates increase.’

●Try to make headlines scan so a quick reader in a hurry won’t trip over your words. This does not mean wiring everything in iambic pentameters but generally don’t leave definite articles, prepositions and conjunctions at the end of the line.

● Play most news headlines straight, with the story’s main point belonging in the (main) headline. That said, about one story in five will give you the chance to shine. Use a suitable idiom for your story, such as ‘Centre forward scores with carnival queen.’ Or if reporting from the City, ‘Oil shares spurt after BP results.’

● You also have room for creativity when writing headers for the feature pages. Take the fashion piece on swimsuits and beach wraps that carried the excellent line ‘Slink or swim.’

● Ensure that headings you write for stories on a website or blog can be recognised by internet search engines.

WHEN TO PAUSE

● Writing a single line header is straightforward but be careful when two or more words that belong together get split on a two-line header. The headline may have a strange ring to it, as in:

American push bottles

up Saddam’s rear

Or the words may give the reader an unintended meaning, as in:

Judge demands sex    

shop closure

● Like intros, headlines often fail by attempting too much. Pick the major part of the story and stick to it when writing the headline.

● You need the verb in a headline to make it active. Without it, the headline is a label and will convey laziness on your part. So avoid ‘Debate on sea defences’ and ‘Harvest forecast.’

●Tag lines are almost as pathetic. So scrap ‘Brown must quit now – MP’ in favour of ‘MP tells Brown to quit.’

●Even more wretched is ‘Lawyer shot mistress three times in bed – court told’. Or the equally ridiculous ‘Alleged mistress shot in bed.’ Instead, choose a fact NOT in dispute, so: ‘Party-loving girl shot in stomach.’

WHAT NOT TO DO

● Try not to use question marks. The headline should indicate what has happened or what is likely to happen.
● Exclamation marks are unnecessary. However every headline should have an exclamatory impact.

● Never use ‘still’ or ‘again’ in headings. They telegraph that the story is not
new.

● Avoid strange initials. BBC and TV are fine; UNRRA and Defra are not so good.
Avoid using the verb to be. It is often padding.

● Try to avoid ‘ban,’ ‘bid;’ ‘claim,’ ‘crack,’ ‘crash,’ ‘cut,’ ‘dash,’ ‘hits,’ ‘move,’ ‘pact,’ ‘plea,’ ‘probe,’ ‘quit,’ ‘quiz,’ ‘rap,’ ‘rush’ and ‘slash.’ Sometimes they will be unavoidable.

SarahWrayRSZD2BODY.jpg

Sarah Wray is a writer and editor who has worked with major publishers since she began freelancing in 2006. Among her clients are the Guardian, Personnel Today and FreelanceUK.

WHAT TO DO

A good headline should catch people's attention, pique their curiosity and make them want to read more.

●So, as a headline writer, first ask ‘How can I express what’s going in - or what’s about to happen or what’s happened, simply, in five or six words? Then ask yourself a few further questions: What will draw the reader in? How will they benefit? What will they learn?

● Sub-editors, or reporters who file their own stories on the web, should ensure keywords feature in the headline to entice search engine users.

WHEN TO PAUSE

● Jokes, quips and plays on words are not forbidden in headlines – they can be fun and engaging. However they should never come before clarity and the aim of persuading people to read more.

WHAT NOT TO DO

● Sometimes you have a strap-line to give readers’ further information, so in the main headline try to stick to a single main point. Cram too much in the top header and it will be less effective


Cedric Pulford is one of the UK’s most experienced journalism trainers and a practising freelance journalist. His writing credits include the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Observer Foreign News Service. He is also the author of JounroLISTS: 200 ways to improve your journalism – which is the source of the following guidance:

WHAT TO DO

●Be specific: General wording is the enemy of effective headlining as it is of effective intros. ‘Minister sets out policies’ and ‘Many holiday treats in Disneyland’ are not horribly wrong, but they are below standard because they don’t say enough.

WHEN TO PAUSE

● [Ensure you] Use quote marks for opinions and claims. The headline, Salesman ‘lured widow to death,’ needs quote marks to indicate that it’s a claim somebody is making. (After a guilty verdict the prosecution evidence is taken as fact so the head could appear without the quotes.) The headline – Traffic ban best for town – however much greens might agree, reflects an opinion that others would dispute. It also needs quote marks. Without them it could be read as the publication’s own opinion – not appropriate in the news columns. In neither case do we need to specify who is making these statements. It is, however, important to show that they are claims and opinions rather than proved facts. Headlines may also specify the speakers, and then we don’t use quote marks:

Salesman lured widow to death – prosecution

Traffic ban best for town, say greens

WHAT NOT TO DO

Avoid alphabet soup. Too many initials, even of well-known organisations, make a headline hard to read (and unpleasant to look at). A good aim is to have just one set of initials per headline. ‘EU and US back NATO claims to UN’ may say a lot, but at a heavy price in readability and elegance.


Dec 15, 2010
Email this article
Printer friendly page

Previous Page


Freelance Alliance
Freelance Alliance
What is Freelance Alliance?
Freelance Alliance