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Write Great Headlines

Keep 'em Short, Accurate and Avoid Bad Breaks

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Write Great Headlines
Photo by Tony Rogers

Writing great headlines is an art. You can churn out the most interesting article ever written, but if it doesn't have an attention-grabbing headline to get people to read it, what's the point? Whether you're at a newspaper or blogging from home, a great headline (or "hed") will always get more eyeballs scanning your copy. Here are some tips.

Be Accurate

This is most important. A headline should entice readers but it shouldn't oversell or distort what the story is about. Always stay true to the spirit and meaning of the story.

Keep It Short

This seems obvious; headlines are by nature short. But when space limitations aren't a consideration (as on a blog, for instance) writers sometimes get verbose with their heds. Shorter is better.

Fill the Space

If you're writing a headline to fill a specific space in a newspaper, avoid leaving too much empty space (what editors call white space) at the end of the hed. Always fill the specified space as best you can.

Don't Repeat the Lede

The headline, like the lede, should focus on the main point of the story. But if the hed and the lede are too similar the lede will become redundant. Try to use slightly different wording in the headline.

Be Direct

Headlines aren't the place to be too obscure or subtle; a direct, straightforward headline gets your point across more effectively.

Use Active Voice

Remember the Subject-Verb-Object formula from newswriting? That's also the best model for headlines. Start with your subject, write in the active voice, and your headline will convey more information using fewer words.

Write in Present Tense

Even if most news stories are written in the past tense, headlines should almost always use present tense.

Avoid Bad Breaks

A bad break is when a hed with more than one line splits a prepositional phrase, an adjective and noun, an adverb and verb or a proper name.

Example:

Obama hosts White

House dinner

Obviously, "White House" should not be split from the first line to the second. Here's a better way to do it:

Obama hosts dinner

at the White House

Make Your Headline Appropriate to the Story

A humorous headline may work with a lighthearted story, but it most definitely wouldn't be appropriate for an article about someone being murdered. Make the tone of the headline match the tone of the story.

Know Where to Capitalize

Always capitalize the first word of the headline and any proper names. Don't capitalize every word unless that's the style of your particular publication.

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