Wick Communications

Boring headlines kill readership, blogger says

In Headlines on 20 Sep 2012 at 10:44 am

I want to thank Sierra Vista Publisher Phil Vega for pointing me toward a very interesting blog post in The Atlantic this week. It concerns headlines.

Writer Conor Friedersdorf asserts that he is a lover of local newspapers but dismayed at the quality of the product he sees on the road. He takes particular aim at the headlines in these newspapers and mentions recent headlines he’s seen, including “Insurers: Redo annuity law that helps elderly” and “Homeless authority holding course through re-assessment.” He says, “The question isn’t whether you’d pay 50 cents to read those stories; it’s whether you’d agree to slog through them if paid $15.”

Well, he’s right, of course. We all run too many boring headlines. The most obvious reason is that we run too many boring stories. Bad stories nearly always beget bad headlines. It’s hard to put a zippy head on that story about the homeless coalition holding course. (But if you have a headless body and a topless bar, you have newspaper gold!)

There are other things we should all do with respect to headlines:

Use active verbs. Avoid simply putting a title on top of the story you crafted so carefully.

Don’t duplicate the lead. Waaaay too often the headline simply apes the lead, using the same noun and verb. That is just lazy.

Consider puns carefully. Sometimes I like ’em. Other times I don’t. Clever is in the eye of the beholder. More often than not, I would chuckle to myself at my cute pun and think of something else, but I wouldn’t ban them outright. The Wall Street Journal ran one last year that I’m still talking about: “Is yoga merely posing as exercise?” I love it! …

Get writers to provide suggested heads. They know the story better than editors or page designers. And if you have to write two a day, you are more likely to write good ones than if you have to write all 20 in the newspaper.

I also want to point your eye to the comments at the bottom of Friedersdorf’s column. They are actually much more interesting than his column. I hope you will take a look.

What are your tips for better headline writing?


  1. Remember, too, that your headline is going on the Web as well as print and that the Web still lacks a lot of the context sensitive properties of your printed product. My favorite example of this was a huge front page headline that read, “They Win !” … Who wins? What did they win? Of course, the headline was accompanied by a gigantic front page picture of the Red Sox baseball team gathering at home plate after (finally) winning the World Series. Readers on the Web need more explanatory headlines. Also, for better Web search engine results, spell out acronyms in Web headlines, particularly geographic ones such as GV (Green Valley), HMB (Half Moon Bay), SV (Sierra Vista), you get the picture.

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