Headlines Matter: Don’t Write Stinky Ones

Writers often slap some sort of headline (or title) on their work right before they publish. Don’t do that!

Headlines are more than just an afterthought; they’re essential to each piece’s success.

Skunk in flowersA poorly written headline is like a skunk at a garden party; people won’t come or will leave very quickly. So, how do we get people to stay and play?

Like barkers at a carnival, headlines need to hook readers in that split-second first impression. If readers aren’t interested, the piece could be award winning stuff but go unread.

Headlines are also deceptively difficult to write.

“C’mon! They’re just a few words long. How hard can it be?”

Well, we need to put the essence of the entire work in those few words while making them sparkle to attract the attention of readers facing a gauntlet of info-barkers. Let me put it to you this way: it’s harder than answering “tell me about yourself” in a job interview.

“How do we give ourselves an edge?”

I’m glad you asked! First off, we must make sure that what’s in the headline has a strong connection to what’s in the piece. How many times have you seen an intriguing headline (“Turtles Take Over the World”) only to find out the story has nothing to do with what’s advertised (candy turtles beat out brownies in school cafeteria polling)? Feel betrayed? So will your readers, and you’ll never see them again.

Which brings me to the too cutesy headline. Yes, we want our headlines to be clever, but we don’t want to get carried away. A serviceable headline is better than an allusion fraught one nobody will get. Alliteration is fun unless it’s forced. Remember, there is a slew of impatient readers out there only too ready to move on at the slightest whiff of difficulty or deception.

Content real estate is valuable, so we can often cut out articles (a, an, the) and forms of the verb to be as long as we don’t sacrifice clarity.golf headline minus articles

A major problem when writing headlines is trying to include too much. Give the readers just a taste to make them want more. Don’t try to serve up the whole meal right away.

too long headline
This is much too long not to mention it sounds as if the newborn is sentenced to eight years in prison.

Also, make sure that the headline actually says what you mean. Mixed up word order can make for malodorous headlines.

misplace modifier headline
If the person is already dead, why did the soldiers shoot him? This should read, “Israeli soldiers shoot Palestinian dead…”

When we remember to use techniques that get readers into the story without deceiving them, we can avoid headlines that stink.

Next Week: The Meat Is in the Content


3 thoughts on “Headlines Matter: Don’t Write Stinky Ones

  1. How about the simple but effective word Kills — Israeli Soldiers Kills Palestinian — You can add (Near Gaza) if needed. The person who reads the story will find our this was a shooting, Thoughts?


    • Well, “kill” makes it simpler, but “shoot” is better if you want to be more specific about the manner of death. Not to mention that those of us who remember the days of counting characters for hard copy print headlines can appreciate a few more words. (Oh, no! Am I showing my age AGAIN?)


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