Headline Writing is Hard!

Candy Birch
North Olathe High Schol
Olathe, Kan.

Title: Headline Writing Is Hard!

Long-term objective

Two-fold: Students will understand that headline writing is a difficult art. Not only is it hard to do in the space allowed, but it is full of pitfalls that can make the newspaper look foolish: mistakes in grammar and spelling, double entendres, incomprehensible ideas. In addition, students will learn to write headlines with these pitfalls in mind.


Even the professionals make mistakes, but journalists lose credibility when they don’t work hard to keep from making mistakes often. Anyone can produce a mediocre paper; excellent papers pay attention to details.


A very important role of a copy editor is to be the final defense before something reaches the reader. It is important to read things the way that readers do. Sometimes that means thinking with a dirty mind.

Lesson duration

One to two class periods


Step one:

  • Powerpoint or overhead presentation of real (funny, disastrous, unfortunate) headlines found in an actual newspaper (10-15 minutes)
  • (Optional) Small groups to find three favorite headlines from Jay Leno’s books. Current examples are published in the Lowercase column on the inside back page of Columbia Journalism Review. The “Horrible Headlines” handout accompanies this lesson plan. Warning: Double entendres in these often are adult in nature. (15 minutes)

Step two:

  • Lecture or Powerpoint presentation on the “Do’s and Don’ts of Headline Writing” (accompanies this lesson plan). Students can take notes or you can give them a handout. (25 minutes)
    • The “Can You Fix These Headlines?” exercise (accompanies this lesson plan) might be a useful handout to use along with this lecture. Teacher: “Can you find an example of of this on the example sheet?
  • Small groups get different copies of the newspaper or are assigned different pages of the latest issue. Have them find what is good and what needs revision. Each group should find 3 to 5 examples. (10-15 minutes)
  • Assign students to write headlines for real articles from student or professional papers; original headlines should be stripped from the stories. They can work in pairs. Presentations will include a summary of the article and the headline they wrote. Teacher should be prepared to show the actual headline printed with the article

Step three:

  • Computer assignment: Students should open a page layout file on the computer (not Microsoft Word) with the same story in several positions on the layout. After reading the story, students must write a headline for each story according to the prescribed space and headline point size specification.
    • The teacher should probably go over the rules for the page — what the minimum point sizes for each of the headlines should be, how much headlines can be “squeezed,” how much white space should be at the side of each headline line(generally no more than 1 “m” of space should be between the last letter and the edge of the headline, and the fact that all headline lines (aka decks) in a single headline (not including the subhead) should be the same point size. (These are all ways to “cheat.”)
    • Suggested headlines for this exercise: banner headline, 2-line headline over three columns, 3-line headline over 1 column (hard)

Ongoing assignment

  • All stories turned in from this point forward will include one or more possible headlines


    • Newspaper or newspapers for individual groups
    • Computer access/page layout program access
    • Columbia Journalism Review or any headline book by Jay Leno