Headlines have been around forever. When Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain, they probably had “The Ten Commandments” headlined across the top. Of course, that wouldn’t be a very good headline because you shouldn’t use an article and there’s no verb.
Certainly newspaper editors have struggled with headlines for centuries – trying to say just enough to catch a reader’s interest without giving away so much information that there’s no need to read the article, and doing it all within a very limited amount of space. This led to the use of words rarely seen anywhere else, such as “solon” and “fete.”
Writing a headline for a website story has some of the same challenges:
• You definitely need to catch the reader’s attention with your headline, hoping to draw a click through to the story. • But if you tell the reader too much, there’s no need to click open and read the story. The eye can just continue down the headline stack looking for something that is of more interest. • Space may or may not be a problem. Some publishing systems, such as ibPublish 2, allow the editor to write a short, catchy teaser headline to display in a headline stack – and then write a lengthier version for the actual article.
Why have a lengthy headline at all? That’s because of a unique demand faced by website editors: Their stories – and their headlines – have to appeal not only to human readers, but also to digital search engines that crawl their sites to categorize their content for online searchers. More on that in a later post. For now, let’s focus on the basics. Here are a few general best practices for headline writing, no matter what medium – and some bloopers to illustrate the points.
* Headlines usually should be written in present tense with an active verb. But be careful that it doesn’t sound silly, like this example:
* Spelling and grammar must be correct. A simple typo can completely change the meaning of the headline:
* Try not to use the words "the" or "and." In most cases replace "and" with a comma – ex: "Model Accused Of Battery, Resisting Arrest.” But sometimes, using a comma instead of the word “and” can lead to bizarre construction:
* Headlines should be brief, but depending on your website’s style, it may be OK to let them wrap to a second line. But note that leaving out too many words can create more humor than information:
* Avoid most cliches. That’s just good writing in any case, but they can make a headline seem stale – or in some cases, hilarious:
On a very serious note, headlines must NOT libel anyone. If someone is not already convicted of a crime, that person is "accused of" or "charged.” You can also avoid some (but not all) libel by using "Police Say…" or "Police: Man Kills Ex-Girlfriend.”
A final few tips:
* The tone of the headline should match the nature of the story -- don't write cute or flip headlines for serious or tragic stories, or visa versa.
* Don't use acronyms in headlines unless they are broadly familiar such as "CIA" or "FBI."
* If the story is common in theme (a murder, an accident, etc.) find something in the story that makes it stand out from others on the same topic.
Please contact me if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at email@example.com or call me at 651-365-4073.
Manager, Editorial Best Practices
And a few more bloopers, just for fun:
Note: Blooper headlines are taken from the book “Correct Me If I’m Wrong,” available from the Newseum.
And if you just can't get enough of odd headlines, you can always go to Jay Leno's site.