Root canals, dressage competitions and peeling paint excite me about as much as this headline: “New Search Tool at Our Company.” Not very compelling, is it?
Would you read the story if the headline were rewritten as, “Limitless Search Tool Transforms Top Managers’ Training?” It’s certainly catchier than the first headline. And it gets bonus points for having an action verb and alliteration.
Novice writers sometimes make the mistake of writing ho-hum label headlines such as the first one above. They tell readers little and put them to sleep. More examples of label headlines: “Excellence Awards,” “Presidential Tax Cut” and “Business Audits.” I’d like to buy a verb, please. Wait, make that three.
Powerful headlines contain active verbs and grab readers from the get-go, drawing them in to stories. It makes no difference if you’re writing copy for a Web site, an e-newsletter, a printed brochure or any other marketing collateral – headlines can make or break your efforts.
Consider this example from The Wall Street Journal: “Slump in Tax Revenue Creates State of Siege.” I might not care a whit about high finance, but this headline grabs me. I instantly envision clashing swords, gnashing teeth and all manner of chaos. I want to know more about the battle that’s under way and who’s fighting. In other words, the headline makes me want to read the story.
As a general rule, avoid using distracting punctuation in headlines. But if you have a brilliant headline that breaks the rules, go ahead and use it. This one from The New York Times is outstanding: “Heel. Sit. Whisper. Good Dog.” The story explains debarking – cutting dogs’ vocal cords to appease complaining neighbors. The headline sets the overall mood for the story and clues readers in to the topic without hitting them over the head. “Whisper” makes me curious enough to stop and read.
Good headlines can also be clever without being too cute, such as this one from The Wall Street Journal: “Boat Makers Steer through Choppiness.” The story details how recreational watercraft manufacturers are navigating the rough waters of the economic downturn.
In addition to using label heads, writers sometimes resort to the fallback question mark technique. That is, they write a headline such as, “Why Are Many Newspapers Failing?” or “Can iPad Save Media?” It’s the lazy way, and yes, I will admit using this approach from time to time. A dull topic can really tax a headline writer. Even the brightest copydesk people I’ve worked with would struggle to craft a compelling headline for a story about changes in financial accounting rules or an article on the finer points of international copyright law.
Another faux pas is to state a negative in a headline. “Employees’ Picnic Not Held Because of Storm” should be rewritten. “Storm Forces Cancellation of Employees’ Picnic” would be acceptable. Now, let’s take it up a notch: “Employees’ Picnic a Washout Due to Storm.”
A common mistake is to split nouns and modifiers or verb forms and prepositional phrases over two lines. These are known as bad breaks. In other words, “California Considers Creating an Online Registry for Animal Abusers,” should get the following treatment: “California Considers Creating” (first line) “an Online Registry for Animal Abusers” (second line) when it won’t fit in a single line. Novices often leave the first line dangling with a preposition or an article.
Headlines that don’t deliver what they promise cheat readers like cheap card tricks. If I kick off a story with, “The Simons Group Shares 10 Content Marketing Secrets,” and I write about our approach to charging for our services or I discuss only five marketing secrets, then I’ve scammed you. And you’ll be angry with me, as you should. Never ever lure readers in with a misleading premise – unless you just love hate mail.
Please make every word count. Long headlines are a drag, especially when they include articles (a, an, the) for padding. Omit articles unless they’re needed for clarity and trim, trim, trim. “HP Wheels Out Year-long Traveling Exhibition of Truck-Mounted Homes Filled with Digital Photography, Computing and Entertainment Products” falls off a cliff. Where are my scissors? Here’s another excessive headline: “For Chip Makers, the Next Front in a Long and Costly War is Smartphones.”
Finally, write headlines in present tense and avoid abbreviations, jargon and technical terms. No one wants to read, “Government Monetizes Revenue Streams for Maximum Output.” Translate for readers. “The 7th Game was Won by the Red Sox” should be rewritten as, “Red Sox Win 7th Game.”
More tips and tricks for headline writing
- Use alliteration to create interest. “Top Teachers Take 10 Trips,” “Some Students Study Steadily.”
- Build around key words for search engine optimization. Incorporate information from the top of the story, but don’t repeat words you’ve already used.
- Use a comma for the word “and” to save space. “Hollywood Grapples with Lost Clout, Negative Image.”
- Make headlines as specific as possible. Don’t write, “Proposed Bill Raises Ire” because it doesn’t specify what the bill is about or who is angry about it.
- Match the tone of the story. If the story will make readers cry, write a sad headline. If readers will laugh out loud, be funny in the headline. Just be careful not to overdo puns because too many dilute the effect.
- If you pull part of a quote from a story, use single quote marks in the headline. In other words, if the story quotes President Obama as saying, “The health-care challenges we face today are greater than ever before,” the headline would read: Obama: ‘Health-care Challenges Greater Than Ever Before.’