The elements of a good headline

Newspaper page with headlines

The “joy to the weed” headline is a perfect example of one that relies on cultural understanding – in this case, it’s a reference to the Christian carol “Joy to the World”. Picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash.

In the good old days of print journalism, in the depths of a smoke-filled subs room, there was one thing a junior sub-editor* wanted: for a grizzled night editor, or revise sub, to look over and say “Good headline”.
The elements of a good headline then were that it was clever or witty, or contained a subtle play on words. And the basis of that cleverness was the assumption that the newspaper and its readers had a shared understanding of the world.
The first time I got that “good headline” accolade was for a brief two-paragraph story about a doctor somewhere in the East who was using ants (or some by-product of ants) to cure people of a long-forgotten (by me) ailment. My headline was:

Take two ants,
call me later

In a 1982 medical paper, the reference is explained – it’s based on “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”, an age-old joke about the telephone advice given by a doctor trying to get a little extra sleep.I started subbing late in the 1980s, and so my headline was a good one – referencing as it did the joke about lazy doctors that most readers of the Cape Times would then have understood.
But now you can’t make those assumptions about your readers.
Almost all headlines, even those in print newspapers, will land up on the Internet, where readers from all over the world can see them. Not only that, the headlines are often seen only in the context of a Google search, where they are completely without cultural context.
So the art of the modern headline is less about cleverness and more about clarity.
I’ve honed my headline writing over the years and can more often than not come up with something good to type at the top of a story. I have a workshop I run on writing headlines, and am happy to share the essentials here:

The elements of a good headline are:

Surprise

It is not news, for instance, that one president welcomes another president to a summit. That’s what they get paid to do. Try to focus on something, anything, that makes the story stand out from the rest.

The personal take

If you phoned a friend, what would be the first thing you told them about this story? Find that element and you find the thing that resonates with other human beings. Your readers are human too. Write headlines from the heart, not the head.

Accuracy

Your headline needs to match the facts in the story, and be spelled right and be grammatical.

Detail, detail, detail

Get in the place, or the time, or a reason why this story matters – if it is too vague, there is no reason for anyone to read it.

Everyday language

Write it like you talk, dude!

And keep learning. If your headlines are overseen by someone else, check what happens to them when they are published. If your headline has been changed, try to see why rather than sulking. This is important particularly if you start work for a new publication. Every place you work for will have a different take on what makes a good headline. I do this every time I take on a new client – there will always be nuances I that I don’t get till I make the effort of immersing myself in the style of a particular publication.

* For readers from other parts of the world, a sub-editor is more or less equivalent to a copy editor.

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