Six simple rules for writing a good headline

THE days when journalists were schooled, apprentice-like, in the dark arts of sub-editing are all but gone from the regional press.

The needs of the digital newsroom now require people to incorporate subbing into their routines regardless of their experience.

Headline writing was the epitome of the sub-editor’s craft. A sub at the top of his game could make even the most mundane story irresistible to the reader.

It was not an easy job. It required ability acquired only through lengthy endeavour at the knees of masters.

Sadly, regional newspapers can no longer bankroll this sort of traditional training, and most of the masters have gone anyway.

So instead here is my back-of-a-fag-packet guide to the essentials of headline writing, and like a good sub I will keep it short:

  1. Use the present tense: Write headlines in the present tense, even to describe events that have already happened (Car hits wall, not Car hit wall). It puts readers in the middle of the action. They are often learning of the event for the first time anyway (especially online), and they understand the convention that the headline is describing events in the publishing time of either a daily or weekly newspaper. There is, however, a point at which events happened so long ago that a present-tense headline is inappropriate, such as in court reports.
  2. Identify the key word: There is one word that stands out to capture the essence of what a story is about: tornado, giant, collapse, mercy. Find it and use it.
  3. Be positive: No one hurt in blaze may be accurate, but it is unlikely to make people want to read your story. Use more positive phrases such as Family escapes blaze unhurt instead.
  4. Avoid puns: The vast majority are lame, inappropriate and baffling to the average reader. They are utterly useless online. Their proliferation in regional newspapers should embarrass us all. Concentrate on telling the story, not wasting your time on wordplay.
  5. Use active verbs: If the verb is weak the headline is weak. Vandals smash car wing mirrors, not Car has wing mirrors smashed by vandals. Verbs drive headlines; choose those that have zing.
  6. Write with the web in mind: Follow all the rules above, but include the sort of stuff people search for: place names, the names of people, and simple descriptions such as Worcester firework displays 2014.
  • Acknowledgement: Essential English, Harold Evans, 1972




About John Wilson

Editor of Hereford Times, Ludlow Advertiser, Stroud News and Journal, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette series. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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One Response to Six simple rules for writing a good headline

  1. Wonderful, John. Many thanks for posting.

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