Making Headlines

From yearbooks to newspapers, websites to infographics, and everything in between, headlines are critical to draw in readers. Yet, headlines are often taken for granted and not talked about nearly enough in the Journalism classroom. A great place to start is reading this article and sharing it with your students.

Headlines do hold historic importance that resonates today. Headlines date back to when increased competition between newspapers led to the use of bolder and stronger headlines. The name of the game was grabbing someone’s attention so they would purchase YOUR newspaper and not the competition’s! 

Jump forward to the day of online news outlets. Headlines are just as important as in the past. When news outlets share articles on social media, it is the headline that catches the reader’s eye. It is the deciding factor when it comes to whether a reader is going to click the link and read the article.  

Let’s start with the basics.  A headline is simply a bold or larger line of text at the top of a story to draw the reader in by summarizing or introducing the story below. A headline’s job calls attention to the story. 

Headlines tips at a glance:

  • Keep it short and to the point
  • Use a subject and verb – if not in the headline, use them in the subhead
  • If you are concerned about SEO (search engine optimization), incorporate a highly-searched keyword
  • Be accurate and specific
  • Be clear so readers know what to expect in the article
  • Use present tense and active verbs
  • Avoid vague pronouns such as they 
  • Avoid clichés 
  • Know your target audience to better appeal to their interests

Let’s dig a little deeper. 

Headlines focus on the main point. When writing a headline, ask yourself this question: If I could tell the reader only one thing about this article in one sentence, what would it be? This is one of the best ways to find the right words for a headline.

Action verbs help! Draw readers into the story with headlines sporting an action verb or two. Those verbs give headlines energy! 

Remember to be accurate with the verbs you choose. Use specific verbs to describe a single action instead of ambiguous ones that hold a variety of meanings. 

For example: East Central College Gets $1,000 

The verb gets is weak and lacks specific details. The reader is left with too many questions. Did East Central College win, steal, or borrow $1,000? Did that $1,000 magically fall from the sky? Was it donated? Oh, and where is that $1,000 going? 

A stronger and more specific verb would have made a huge clarifying difference.

For example: Anonymous $1,000 Donation Boosts East Central College’s Culinary Arts Program

People are emotional by nature. Appealing to emotion is another way to capture a reader’s attention. Just make sure the emotional appeal is a fitting extension of the story. And, as tempting as it may be to say the murder of a child is a “Mother’s Worst Nightmare,” it is important to steer clear of clichés and over-used phrases.

“Medium” has several tips for creating emotional headlines. How to Create Emotional Headlines for your Next Posts 

There’s always more to learn about headlines. With that said, here are a four more helpful links for your consideration:

40 Headlines: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Secret to Writing Great Headlines for Your News Stories

Writing Great Headlines – Michigan State University School of Journalism

Poynter’s 9 Tips for Writing Stronger Headlines