Guide to Writing Headlines

August 14, 2002
Category: Archive

By John Russial, University of Oregon
Special to the Poynter Institute

George Orwell said – more or less – that there is no greater human drive than the urge to change someone’s copy. Most copyeditors would disagree. The urge to be clever is much more powerful. William Faulkner had a few things to say about that, namely, “Kill your darlings,” that is, strike out your clever turns of phrase.

That’s a bit extreme. When it comes to cleverness, copyeditors are like Ursula, the sea witch in “The Little Mermaid.” They say, “It’s what I live for.” Clever is not a four-letter word. In fact, the opportunity to stretch one’s literary wings in what amounts to a telephone booth helps make the job come alive.

But – and you knew the next word had to be “but” – clever, catchy, cute and comical can be a crime if an editor fails to temper the urge with common sense. Reasonable people may disagree on the merits of one headline or another, but good copyeditors tend to follow a few ground rules, even if they never articulate them:

1. First, do no harm

  • Now, that’s original. What it means in this context is:

    • Have some empathy. Imagine that the subject of the story is your neighbor or a family member. One person’s cleverness is another’s ridicule. Petty-crime stories are a minefield.

    • If you’re still not sure, ask around.

2. Make sure the big type does not contradict the little type.

  • The facts should be consistent

  • The interpretation should be consistent

  • The tone should be consistent

3. Use humor or cleverness to invite readers in, not drive them away

  • Do not make the reader groan. You know what I mean. If you don’t, take a look at these.

  • Do not make the reader say, “Huh?”

  • Eschew jargon or terms familiar only to an in-group. Be especially careful in sections that celebrate “inside baseball” terminology, such as business. Or even sports. Also, be aware that most copyeditors are younger than most readers. Eschew words such as “eschew” too.

  • Make sure that your reach for an image does not exceed your grasp. How will you know? Ask somebody else. Someone who isn’t a close friend.

4. Stay away from cliche…

  • …Unless–and there are exceptions to every rule– you can find a way to turn a cliche on its head. Some very good heads are upended cliches. These work.

5. Use plays on words to contribute to meaning, not to show off.

  • Self-indulgence adds nothing worth having.

  • Word plays on people’s names are generally a bad idea. For example, if some guy whose name happens to be Moses wrote a book about Jeeps, don’t say, “This Moses wrote the bible on Jeeps,” as one headline-writer did.

  • Word plays on business names are generally a very bad idea. They often trivialize news.

  • Well-thought-out word plays can be an invitation. Sometimes, paradoxically, you can even use ambiguity to make the story more understandable or accessible. An added bonus: If you can harness ambiguity, you can sometimes effectively double your head count. This is tricky. Here are a few ambiguous heads that work. I think.

6. The last rule is to ignore all of the above if you have a good reason.

  • Good reasons, however, are typically in short supply.

The bottom line is:
1. Can you follow the rules and still write bright heads?
2. Or will following these rules “drain the color from the autumn leaves,”
as a city editor I knew once said? Come to think of it, he said it often.

  • 1. Yes.

  • 2. And no.

Some examples:


The pear facts about anjous

Plan for a fence at jail
has some neighbors railing

Rail plan is …
…on track …off the track…at a crossroads
…going downhill…going uphill…moving at full throttle
…huffing and puffing like the little engine that could

Anything TAXING around April 15.

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Give them an inch,
they’ll take a yard
(on invasive ground covers)

At Leavenworth,
they break out in song
(on a great escape during a prison concert)

Couples in the
real estate game

Betting on pairs

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