Tips of the Trade: Writing Headlines

Dave Harbord, deputy editor and night editor, Daily Star Sunday

The immediate thing is to attract readers. You’ve got to make them want to read the story. Avoid too many puns. We all get carried away sometimes and occasionally we try to write for ourselves rather than thinking of the reader.

If I’m struggling, I’ll bounce it around a bit and throw it open. You can write it to a picture sometimes, but mainly you do it to the story. The only way you can get common words out of people’s minds is to say certain words are out. For instance, I always avoid “bonk”. We don’t like “stunna” either.

Try to keep up-to-date with songs, showbiz stuff and TV soaps. Sometimes you’ve got to write into the story a little point to explain your headline, which gets a bit awkward.

Wynford Hicks, co-author of Sub-editing for journalists

For news, you’re talking accuracy. If the introduction is trying to get the story in a nutshell, the headline is even more compressed. It has to be even more precise and direct. If it is obscure it is counterproductive. In features, it’s a distilled essence of what you need to say – more than that, it must be intriguing to pull you into the story and get you to read it. You can be inventive and witty, whereas news is more straight, compressed and economical.

A common mistake is going further than the story warrants by exaggerating and overstating the headline. It’s like the boy who cries wolf and next time the readers will say it’s not true. It has to stand up. ClichŽs such as “slam” and “axe” have their place because they are short, but if they are used too often, people react against them. If it’s a serious story, it’s a question of taste and balance. One problem is using devices such as alliteration when you don’t intend to. It’s useful in its place and with serious stories you’ve got to be more careful. “Small earthquake in Chile, not many people dead” is the famous example that springs to mind to illustrate a non-headline.

Danny Lockwood, publisher/editor, The Press (Dewsbury), League Weekly and The Yorker

Don’t use type size to make the headline fit the text box (desktop publishing’s cardinal fault) – use words.
Understand your newspaper’s style and your readers’ expectations.
Leave the colour palette alone, forever; put your hand up and ask permission to use WOBs.
Avoid words from the intro unless they make a killer headline – then rework the intro.
Clever puns only, please.
Ensure lead story headlines are in scale – that’s the impact of the words to the merit of the story, not just the font size to the page.
Ask for help when you can’t see the right headline on a good tale. If you’re drawing the page too, “see” the lead headline and its relation to the picture before you start laying out.
Make sure your funnies are appropriate. Death never is.
Understand how different styles of headline – banner, comment etc, can work together.
Buy into the big story to the point that emotion comes through in your headlines. Be happy/angry for the reader.
If the highlight of your subbing desk’s shift is coming up with an entry for the Press Gazette Headline of the Month comp, you’re missing the point of the job (nudge nudge Mike and the Lancaster/Morecambe boys).

Kevin McCreeth, chief sub-editor, Heat

The only point of a headline is to get people to read the story. How you entice the reader in depends on the nature of the piece. A does-what-it-says-on-the-tin news head seems straightforward to write, but the challenge is encapsulating the heart of the story and major player(s) in a few snappy words. The reader should know what they’re going to get and be led seamlessly into the story by the head.

Features heads can be much more playful and witty – here’s where wordplay, puns and cultural references come in. Never forget that you are writing for your readers’ benefit, not your own. A cultural reference that you may find devastatingly funny may be completely lost on your readership, or worse, make them feel stupid. Headlines must work instantly; they should not require thought to “get” the joke.

Isolating key words from the copy and thinking around them can help move things along, as can brainstorming across the subs’ desk.

Robert Epstein, production editor, Marketing

News headlines are not there to show off your ability to pun or your knowledge of long words; they are there to tell the nub of the story at a glance. Headers should be active, have dynamic verbs and leave readers wanting more. If you’re struggling to come up with a headline talk to the reporter to get a better feel for what it’s about.

Interviews by Sarah Boden

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