A headline should invite people to actually read the full article it is referring to. Headings and subheadings are becoming increasingly important as people scan content before deciding to read the entire text. Here’s help to avoid horrible headlines.
These pointers, in no particular order, can help you to write titles that draw people into your text:
- Titles should capture the main idea of the story: The headline must be about the main idea of the story. If you can angle this into something your audience will find valuable, useful or newsworthy, even better. “Why Smit dropped the ball” or “Find out how to invest like Warren Buffett”. Make sure you understand what the story is about before you write or change a headline.
- What you need to know about online headlines: In print media, the headline and body copy go together. On websites and in e-newsletters, headlines are often just a link on which you need to click to see the full article. The headline must therefore contain the key words that tell you what the topic is and what the story is about. The key words are vital as this enables search engines like Google to pick up your article. Don’t try to be too creative or catchy because there is no body copy to provide context.
- Shorter is better: A short and direct heading is better than a bulky one. But don’t make it so short that your readers can’t catch your drift. Also, use short words. Long, cumbersome words are more difficult to read, fit into a layout or break up.
- Use the active voice: Use a subject and strong present-tense verb even if you refer to past events. Use “Estate agents sell only one home a week as market struggles” instead of “Tough residential market” or “Agents sold fewer properties”.
- Be authentic: Write believable headings. Misleading headlines can make you doubt the entire article. Don’t exaggerate or generalise. Fact-checking is a must.
- Cut out unnecessary words: These are words like “a”, “was”, “were”, “the” and “located” (“The house located in Main Street burnt down” – what else can the house be than located?). These words take up valuable space without adding real meaning.
- Choose words that stand out: Compare “Smit wants support” versus “Smit begs for support”. Try not to use bland words. The easiest way to find a synonym when you are working in MS Word is to highlight the word, right-click on it and hold your cursor over Synonyms in the drop-down list.
- DON’T PUT EVERYTHING IN UPPER CASE: An entire heading in caps is busy and difficult to read. Only the first word of a heading has an initial capital letter.
- Break multi-line headings in meaningful units: If you heading is spread over two or three lines, break it in meaningful units. If you highlight (bold, colour, italics) words, highlight in meaning units.
- Don’t put a full stop after a heading: A full stop after a heading says “This stops here. Don't bother to read on.”
- Avoid ambiguity: Years ago, a well-known Afrikaans newspaper put up two posters one morning. The top one on the lamppost said “Plakkers val Distrik 6 binne” (Squatters invade District 6) while the second one shouted “Plak saam en wen ’n kar” – referring to the cut-and-paste competition it was running. This happens when departments work in silos.
- Get the bigger picture: When you have multiple headings on a page or double-page spread, check the headings on the final layout. This allows you to spot where you used the same “stand-out” word in more than one heading, or where two top-of-the-page headings look like one heading spread over two pages. You will also see where a crucial word or letters disappeared into the gutter between two facing pages.
- Test your headlines: If you are uneasy about your headline, ask others what they think. This will help you to gain clarity and avoid embarrassment. Don’t assume your readers will know what you mean. Ask whether they know what the story is about after they have read the headline.
If you are hesitant about a headline, start with a working title or temporary headline. Or write down words or concepts that can be turned into a title. Then finalise the headline after you have finished the article as you will then know whether it fits or not.