Upon first opening a newspaper, the first thing that catches the eye, other than the picture if there is one, is the story’s headline. The headline is the “title” of the article. It is usually found near the top of the article and in a larger font than the story, although not always. It is a one-sentence summarization of the story that readers use to determine whether or not the article is of interest and/or importance to them. As a result, it is the headline that determines whether the article will be read or if the article will be completely ignored in favor of one of the other stories. “The importance of headlines cannot be understated. For many editors, can seem like added burdens; the stories are what really count. Headlines are far too often written last (often quickly and under deadline pressure),” (Columbia). Contrary to this claim, writing a strong headline is imperative to any journalist (or any provider of news).
Writing a headline is a step in the article process that either receives a quantity of attention or barely any. In disregard to the journalist’s opinion of its importance, the headline must be written and there are a number of little ’tips’ to ensure the headline is the best it could be. For example, Columbia.edu states that when writing a headline one should highlight intrigue, contrast or conflict within central theme, and to use key words. They continue to advise to avoid lazy writing; to not settle for the first attempt. Seeking the input of others and listen to those who object is another piece of advice they had stated.
When writing a headline, Columbia continues to on the subject and states that the headline must be correct (in fact and implication), must connect to ordinary readers (be easily understood), must attract attention (using interesting, active words), and must set (or match) tone of the article. They also advise to “Never allow cute, creative headlines to blind you to the need for accuracy. Be alert to headlines that have unintended meanings.”
There are other Headline Rules, according to Radford. For example, “Headlines should tell something – Don’t write non-heads… Conjunctions, prepositions and modifiers should not be placed at the end of a line. Don’t split modifiers…Don’t modify modifiers…Headlines should usually have a verb; if not, it should be a better head without it…Fill out the count. Don’t leave trapped white space…Cutting can improve most stories.”
If the story is a news or feature article, then Columbia states that when writing a headline one include keywords from the article and the journalist should be quick but not to hurry; “don’t allow the goal of “pushing pages” before deadline to short-circuit the need to write accurate, clear, tasteful headlines. Remember: readers start here.”
If the article is news, “Play it straight, summarize the news.” If the article is feature, “Be creative. Tease, flirt, hint – but don’t give away lead. Use freshened clichés, creative puns, twists of ad slogans, well-known sayings,” (Columbia).
When verbs are going to be included in it, the headline should be written in active action verbs. Short verbs are better. Connotations should be examined as well as the context for unintended messages. If no verbs are going to be used, “use creative, attractive hammers of one to three words,” (Columbia).
According to G.S Virdi (Ten Secretes of Writing Effective Headlines), the TACT test is one way to ensure an effective headline. Go through The Taste-Attractiveness-Clarity-Truth Test and make sure each category is YES. Is it in good taste, would it offend anyone in anyway? Does it attract the reader’s attention? Does it communicate clearly, quickly? Is it accurate, true? If there is a single NO, then re-write the headline.
Columbia.edu’s page on how to write a strong headline had a list of Do-and-Don’ts. For example, “Make the headline easy to read. The key purpose of the head: to communicate…Don’t mislead reader…Don’t exaggerate; maintain neutrality…Remember the rules of grammar and use them…Don’t begin with a verb …Use present tense to indicate past…Don’t use present tense to indicate future unless necessary; add time element for clarity….Don’t use said, when you mean said to be…Don’t use feel, believes or thinks…Avoid slang unless relevant to feature story and headline. These tips are only few of a vast list.
Writing a headline is a unavoidable part of writing a story. Some newspaper journalists don’t have to write their headlines while other papers require it. Some find it annoying while others find it as a chance to be clever and witty. Regardless of whether or not one enjoys writing it, the headline is one of the first things the eye is drawn to and as a result, one of the most important parts of the whole article.