A headline is the “primary tool to grab and hold the reader” (University of North Carolina). Headlines, unfortunately, are often written last and therefore hurried because of an upcoming deadline, but headlines are “where readers start” (Columbia University). A reader scans the page looking for something of interest—and it is the headline that first attracts his attention and invites him to read on. This is why the most important thing to consider when writing a headline is whether it cleanly and accurately tells what the story is about. The headline’s purpose should never be to trick the reader into continuing to the story, because he will be disappointed and unsatisfied.
There are a variety of general rules concerning headlines. According to the University of Kansas, “[effective] headlines usually involve logical sentence structure, active voice and strong presence-tense verbs… good headlines are driven by good verbs.” The University of North Carolina specifies that headlines must be abstract, usually between five and ten words, and state a complete thought. Abbreviations, unidentified pronouns, and ambiguous or not widely known names should all be avoided. Headlines may never begin with verbs. Punctuation should be used infrequently. For example, the University of Kansas shares that periods should only be used for abbreviations and single quotes should be used where double quotes would generally be used. Most words in a headline are not capitalized, save the first word, proper nouns, and usually the first word following a colon (some publications differ). When using numbers, a writer may sometimes break AP style guidelines. For example, if the headline begins with a number below ten, spelling it out will likely look better than the numeral. Breaks in headlines are also very important. A writer needs to make sure that if there is a break, it does not cause the message to be confusing or too choppy. If it does, the writer may need to revise the original wording.
Matt Thompson of Poynter Institue offers a list of questions for writers to contemplate while coming up with a headline. “Is it accurate?” is his first question, quite expectedly. Some of his following questions concern “how compelling a promise” the headline makes, whether it is straightforward or too embellished, if it’s made up of too many words, whether it obeys the “name the known, omit the obscure” rule (only naming individuals who are well-known and using the titles or descriptions of others), and whether it focuses on what an event means rather than the event itself. In the end, “you want to make your headlines sing.”
Additionally, in a world where everything is rapidly becoming digitized, headlines may need to cater to readers using online search engines to find material. David Marsh of The Guardian addresses this. He claims that keywords are critical in online headlines—more so than when in print—because they help readers find specific material. He also considers it even more imperative for online stories to have snappy headlines, as every click earns money. “[Headlines] are increasingly used as clickbait,” he wrote. Evidently, thinking up headlines is “harder than it looks” and ought to be given a good deal of consideration.
There are certainly a lot of rules involved in the process of writing a headline. But the most important thing to remember is that its primary job is to summarize the story accurately, or convey the central idea. Secondly, it must be an easy, smooth read for the audience. Any story, whether printed in a newspaper or a magazine, “must connect to ordinary readers” (Columbia University). Other rules (like the ones discussed above) are crucial as well, but they should not be a writer’s first concern.
University of North Carolina at Pembroke webpage
Columbia University webpage
University of Kansas webpage
Article by Matt Thompson, Poynter Institute
Article by David Marsh, The Guardian