June 20, 2017

Headlines are lifelines to our readers. They grab attention, build trust and help time-pressed consumers focus on the stories they care most about. How do you ensure that they are engaging as well as accurate? Here are 10 questions to ask when you are writing (or editing) headlines.

  • Is it accurate? There’s no such thing as “kind of” accurate. When you check a headline, take note of each word and make sure it’s correct.
  • Does it undersell the story? The headline might be accurate, but it might not make the story’s point strongly enough. The headline should be as strong as the content allows.
  • Does it oversell the story? You want it to be strong, but you don’t want to cheat the reader.
  • Does it make the right point? Or is it yesterday’s news? A side issue? Is it merely the story’s entry point but not really the crux of it?
  • Is it easily understandable? Or do you have to read it two or three times to get it?
  • Does its tone match the story’s tone? Is it a light-hearted headline on a serious matter? An obvious pun that makes readers groan instead of read? A flat headline on a dramatic piece? The headline should be in tune with the story.
  • Does it match the overall personality of your site and organization? How edgy can you be? Who is your targeted audience?
  • Does it follow your organization’s style?
  • Is the most interesting part of the headline at the beginning or end? Try to put your best phrase up front.
  • Does it use good, interesting, efficient language? Or is it weighed down with vagueness, bureaucracy or boring words? Government officials review subcommittee’s initial vote on…. Zzzzzzzzzz.
  • Which brings us to the final test: Based on the headline you’re critiquing, would YOU read the story?

Taken from Web Headlines & SEO Essentials, an online course with John Schlander at Poynter NewsU. For more on headlines and SEO, visit Writing Online Headlines: SEO and Beyond.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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