The Art of Headlines

01.02.2016 |

Episode #9 of the course “The basics of English writing” by Sarah Stanley


Titles are hard. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and it either grabs their attention, drawing them to your piece, or it garners zero attention as they scroll away. It’s the most important phrase in your work.

Before it was officially titled “Star Wars” or “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the 1977 classic was going to be called “Adventures of Luke Starkiller, As Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1: The Star Wars.” Long-winded and full of proper nouns that the original audience (or most of us, for that matter) wouldn’t have known, it would have been a terrible choice for a title. Let’s all be thankful that this elongated and dull title didn’t make the final cut.

Here are some guidelines for headlines/titles:

1. It’s specific

It’s not vague, it’s not elusive, it’s to the point, and it gives readers a clear picture of what they’re in for.

2. It’s easy to understand

Given how information is gathered in this day and age, most likely you’re competing with dozens of other headlines for attention. If your title is confusing, people won’t bother with it.

3. It leads to a reaction

Most of the time, the reason someone clicks on something is because they’re curious. They see a headline that causes an emotional response. They’re stirred to learn more about the topic, they’re surprised by a fact being touted and want to know the details, or they’re sad or happy about something and want to learn more. You don’t want your reader to scan your headline and immediately become confused, or worse, disinterested.

4. It’s a clear promise

You’re promising a story or a set of instructions or some other kind of data. It’s an informal exchange; for their time and attention, you’re giving them new information or a new story. That being said, don’t overpromise.

5. It’s not too clever

Lastly, but just as important as the first four guidelines, don’t distract your reader by trying too hard. Creativity is beautiful, it’s a gift to have, and it makes any writing better, but don’t get crazy with it. You want your headline to stand out, but don’t distract with an inappropriate pun or an overly contemporary reference.

Also remember to know your audience. Sometimes adding humor to your headline is a winning strategy, and other times it will hurt your credibility. The title of a report to the board of a financial firm will be very different than the headline of a millennial blog discussing current trends on Wall Street, even if the overall topic is relatively similar. It all depends on who you’re talking to and why you’re writing. Knowing who will be receiving your information is just as important as delivering your information well.



Recommended book

“On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction” by William Zinsser


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