June 6, 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. Here are nine ways to write engaging, accurate headlines for any platform.

Be specific, not vague. Draw readers in because your headline is compelling. Don’t waste readers’ time by asking them to keep reading to see what the story is really about. And if your five to 10 words give away too much of the story, it’s not much of a story anyway. On a related note: It’s great to invoke curiosity, but don’t mislead or overpromise. Accuracy and credibility count every time, with every story.

Start simple. You’ve read the story, but the blank headline field keeps staring back at you. Think: subject, verb. Who, what. Then build on it. This may sound basic, but it even helps veteran headline writers.

Explore the 5 W’s and 1 H. Ask yourself: Who, what, when, where, why, how. What are the primary questions addressed by story? Focus on those elements in your headline. Is it a profile of a person? That’s a “who” story. Breaking news? Probably a “what” story.

Go beyond puns. Write headlines for your readers, not to show you’re clever. For wordplay to work, it needs to communicate the story’s point and tone, and it should work on both the literal and figurative levels.

Take the mental picture. What picture comes to mind as you read the story? Use that in your headline.

Change your perspective. Tune in to your targeted audience. For example, instead of writing the headline from an agency’s perspective (Officials approve later high school starting times), write it from the affected person’s perspective (Students applaud later high school starting times).

Get emotional. Is there anger? Love? Frustration? Desperation? Appreciation? Respect? Elation? Shame? Embarrassment? People respond to emotion.

Use strong words. Identify words and phrases that best describe your topic. Look for single words that do the work of two, or a two- or three-word phrase that does the work of five or six words.

Value the verb. A fresh verb can really make a headline. An aside regarding search engine optimization: Nouns overshadow verbs as popular search keywords, but verbs can power a headline’s click-through rate by making the headline more interesting.

Taken from Web Headlines & SEO Essentials, an online seminar with John Schlander at Poynter NewsU.

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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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