Writing a headline is often the last thing standing between you and a completed article. In an effort to finish the process, it is tempting to quickly write down the first thing that comes to mind. However, headlines are a critical part of any article, determining whether a reader scans over your piece or stops to read. Below are some tips to help you write strong headlines, so the next time your article appears on someone’s social feed, they will engage with your writing rather than scrolling past:
Know your platform. Is this an article that will be published in print or online? Print articles put pressure on the amount of space your headline takes up, but online publishing requires that you use important keywords in your headline so readers can find your article through a search engine. The platform will also affect the headline’s tone; social media, for example, generally uses a more informal tone than that of print journalism.
Know your audience. It is important to tailor your headline to appeal to the readers you would like to attract. This can be achieved through a change in perspective. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes then write the headline from a perspective they can relate to. For example, instead of focusing on the agency’s perspective — “Officials approve later high school start times” — focus on the students’ perspective: “Students applaud later high school start times.”
Be straightforward. Many writers and media organizations have become enamored with what is referred to as the “curiosity gap” headline. These headlines only give a small amount of information, leaving readers to question what the article is actually about. For example, one Upworthy headline reads, “Watch the first 54 seconds, you’ll be hooked after that, I swear.” Although these titles may increase online media clicks, they rarely encourage engagement. Headlines should tell the story and include the main ideas, not withhold them. Use the five W’s, (who, what, when, where and why) and one H (how) to help determine the focus of your title. This does not mean that your headline cannot be creative or interesting, but rather that it should be honest with your readers.
Word choice matters. Do not settle for the first word that comes to mind when you are writing a headline. Oftentimes a single word can replace a short phrase, and in doing so, strengthen the title altogether. Using verbs in your headline can increase an article’s performance and get more people interested than headlines full of nouns and adjectives. However, keep the article’s true meaning and intent in mind, and never sacrifice truth for a more enticing word.
Do not depend on context. Assume your potential readers have little to no knowledge about your article’s topic. Then ask yourself, would they be able to understand this headline? It is best to avoid acronyms and proper names, unless they are widely recognizable.
Grammar is important. Headlines do not have to follow normal grammatical rules. There is, however, a set of norms that are widely accepted for writing headlines. A list containing these formalities is compiled below. However, these can change based on the publication so it is always best to review the style of your publication before submitting a finalized headline.
Always use present tense, even if the event happened in the past
Use the infinitive form of a verb for future events
Do not spell out numbers
Use single quotation marks
Leave out auxiliary verbs
Leave out articles
Use a colon instead of ‘says’ or ‘said’
Capitalize only the first word in the headline
Replace conjunctions with punctuation
Does your headline have TACT? Before you finish, do a quick check of your headline by testing for TACT: Taste, Attractiveness, Clarity and Truth. Is the headline tasteful, or can it be interpreted in a way that would be offensive? Does it attract potential readers? Is it clear what the article is about? Most importantly, is the headline true? If the answer to any of these questions is no, your headline is not ready for publication.
Upworthy encourages their writers and copyeditors to write 25 headlines per article. Rather than glossing over the process, spend time brainstorming, writing and rewriting your headline until you are satisfied that the final product will direct more attention to your article. What may feel like a waste of time will have tremendous payoffs, no matter where your article is published.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via hjjanisch.