December 17, 2002

By Jim Heinrich
Sunday Magazine copy editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jim Heinrich

Trying to explain what makes a headline good is like trying to explain what makes a joke funny or a photo pornographic — you recognize it, but you can’t necessarily explain it.

Occasionally, I’m stuck. Then I realize the story doesn’t have a strong nut graph, or a key element is unclear. So I go back to the reporter or editor, and when the story improves, my writer’s block clears up.

Far more often, the stories, photos and graphics inspire me. I don’t want to give up until I find a headline worthy of the package. A corollary to this rule: If someone else can think of a better headline, God bless him or her.

Let’s state the obvious: You can’t write a good headline unless you’ve read the story. Because the headline is often the first thing a reader perceives, it must reflect the tone of the story, the photos and the graphic elements. A funny story deserves a funny headline. A serious story doesn’t deserve a flip headline. If the headline doesn’t quite work, don’t use it.

But the headline is part of a total package. Whenever possible, look at the photos and/or graphics. I frequently get ideas from the artist’s own quirky vision.

The worst insult a headline writer can give a story is to be trite. That sin is bad enough in body type; in 48 point, the irredeemable qualities multiply to the 10th power. The bigger the type, the better the headline must be.

Don’t use headlines that have appeared in the Post-Gazette. When in doubt, I search the library to make sure I’m not recycling old ones, including my own. Every November, for example, I edit ski packages for the travel section. In recent years I’ve used “Skiing is believing,” “See and ski” and, this year, “Reach for the skis.” I’ve banned these for life, even though it’s a struggle to come up with a new idea.

My best tools for writing headlines are my rhyming dictionary, my dictionary, my thesaurus and (the extraordinary Internet Movie Data Base). I use the rhyming dictionary not because I want to write headlines with rhymes. That device is trite, even in stories about rhyming poetry. (I make occasional exceptions: “Walking off the calories at London’s lovely galleries” had a lilt to it and, I think, fit a Marilyn McDevitt Rubin column.)

Instead, I look up words that rhyme with or sound like a key word, phrase, name or concept in the story, and I play word association games. I use the dictionary and thesaurus the same way. is my favorite word-association tool. Just type in the relevant words and get immediate inspiration.

Many good headlines come from thinking of words that SOUND like key words you’re writing about. Some hammer head examples: “Carnival knowledge” — “Bra, humbug” — “Paradise lofts” — “Show me the monkey” — “Believe in ferries.”

Another tactic is to take common quotes and phrases and give them a twist: “America discovers Columbus” — “All things come to those who waitress” — “Woolf in sheep’s clothing” — “Let’s hear it for sushi – raw, raw, raw.”

Last word: Just thinking about headline writing will make [your] headlines better.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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