Writing headlines that
intrigue, inform, and fit
Note: Take special interest in boldface words.
Headline writing is a craft that the best copy editors elevate to an art. One of the
enjoyable parts of teaching an editing class is seeing students discover that they have a
“knack” for writing headlines. Even those who have the natural gift will find writing
heads a challenge at first. It’s a little like writing a haiku or a sonnet: space is tight and
there are firm rules. The really good heads stick in your mind. Headline writing involves
each of the main principles we have been discussing: conciseness and vigor in writing,
sharp news judgment, and, on many levels, humility and a service ethic.
Headlines are written for stories written by other professionals – our colleagues, who love
to see their stories get “a good ride,” meaning good placement, headlines and graphic
Headlines are written for the collective, whether it is a newspaper, magazine, web desk,
television station (graphic overlays are really just a type of headline, and we’ll work a
little on those), or public-relations agency or office. That means our headlines should
reflect the attitudes and tastes of the organization at least to some degree. The
may go with “Headless body in topless bar” – and did. The
New York Times
not. A smart copy editor at the
(such as our department’s own
in 2002-2003) will know that without having to learn by personal experience.
Most important, headlines are written for the readers. For them, we need to catch the
most interesting and relevant “heart” of the story. For them, we need to be accurate and
careful with language. For them, we need to be catchy, fun and entertaining in our
wordplay, or, in our treatment of sad or tragic stories, respectful and sensitive.
Read the story carefully. Understand the main point, the tone, and any nuance in the
reporting. When you’ve written the headline, read the story again to make sure you
haven’t digressed in tone, shading, or fact.
Headline writing is a process of writing and revision. The first thing that fits and follows
the rules is rarely a good enough headline to publish. Get used to “tweaking” for tone,
content, cadence, and fit.