A Guide to Writing Great Headlines

Writing great headlines requires having an engaging story.  Even the best writers can’t write a great headline for a boring story, and that’s because the best headlines are the ones that promise great stories and fulfill that promise. 

  1. Headlines should be specific

Imagine yourself telling someone a story in 1 minute. You will need to get the most interesting fact across as fast as you can, which means you can’t be vague about it.  Same goes for your headline. When people read it, they are going to make a quick decision – Do I care about this? You want to give them enough details to connect to the story and make that decision. You want them to not only click on your story, you want to create a positive experience for your readers. You don’t want people to feel tricked or disappointed that the article has nothing to do with the headline.

2. Make your headline easy to understand

You only have a moment or two to make your point so make sure your readers can easily understand it.  There is also a good chance that they are looking on their mobile device which makes the screen small and the experience fast.  Keep it straightforward, avoid things that are not universally recognized. Consider how people will be able to understand your headline out of context, without an image next to it.  Remember the headline is the part of your story that travels to all corners of the internet.  It should make sense to people wherever it lands.

3. Headlines should lead to a reaction

People tend to look for something interested to read, watch or listen to.  How will they react when they read your headline? Will they be sad? Angry? Curious? Happy? Does it make them want to click on it, read it or share with others? Try showing your friends or family your headline and asking for their immediate reaction.

 4. Headlines should not be overly clever

Headlines should be infused with your voice, just like your story. This is the case especially for public media. With that in mind, beware of the overly clever headline. A headline with a pun or cultural reference is fun to write but is it needed?  Will people get it? Or will people spend too much time trying to “get” your humor. You want to make it creative and unique but not too clever.

5. Headlines should capture the spirit

In addition to the 4 characteristics outlined above, the headline should tap into the spirit of the story.  Is it a happy story? A serious one? An Essay or Investigative piece? Whatever voice your story is written in, that voice should come through in the headline. However, if a story is newsy and straight-forward, it doesn’t need to have a lot of voice injected into it. As you are writing, ask yourself if they story’s essence matches your headline.

Some final tips

-Slightly long main headlines tend to keep the reader’s attention.

-The headline should answer the reader’s question “What’s in it for me?”

-Photos can augment a headline but must be relevant and complementary.

-Practice and test! Your readers will tell you by their actions, which headlines work and which fail.