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March 3, 2011 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Headline help: What tips can you share about writing good headlines? Any favorite examples to share?

I teach a class on Writing for the Web, and we're talking about headline writing this week. I'm pretty well set on the basics, but I'm sure there's plenty of good advice in the hive mind. If you have any tips on how to serve SEO needs without sounding like a machine, that would be particularly helpful.

Semi-separately, I'd like to show a broad collection of good headlines -- as well as some bad ones, too. To get that started, I'd like to share one of the best I've seen in awhile: Hooked on the lines of Sinker
posted by me3dia to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For your collection of good headlines, you'll have to include the all-time classic "Headless Body Found In Topless Bar".
posted by BobbyVan at 9:05 AM on March 3, 2011

Sticks Nix Hick Pix. Meaning, people in the country don't want to see movies about people in the country.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:17 AM on March 3, 2011

Best answer: Please for the love of god teach your students not to be deliberately opaque in headlines for the sake of clicks. The Chicago Tribune is particularly bad about this, often using the word "suburb": "Suburb voted best place to live," "Suburban man wins competition" etc.

For god's sake, tell us the suburb upfront rather than deliberately leaving it out to get cheap clicks. End of rant.
posted by adrian_h at 9:18 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Self-link (or, mom-link) alert -- My mom often analyzes headlines on her blog. For example:
Crazy Daily News headline: "President Obama hits church with First Family in bid to altar 'Muslim' myth."

Quite aside from the (deliberate?) misspelling — "altar" for "alter" — and the repetition of the "myth" — which I'm putting in quotes only because its their word — the newspaper purports to know why a man (and a woman and 2 little girls) go to church.
posted by John Cohen at 9:21 AM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

You may want to discuss line breaks, and how they can affect the way a headline is parsed.

Chicken Heads
An All-American Meal

may be read differently than

Chicken Heads An All-American Meal.

This real example brought to you by the Portland Press Herald.
I spent a long time that morning wondering why they thought chicken heads were a particularly American dish before realizing they meant to place chicken at the head of a meal.
posted by Adridne at 9:44 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

When the minor Scottish soccer team Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat the mighty Glasgow Celtic, one of the biggest upsets in football history, the headline was: SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC, CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:54 AM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Make it accurate, make it fit and then, if possible, make it witty was the advice I was given when I first started. Avoid puns on people's names. Avoid the four-noun shuffle. Avoid exclamation marks. Break the last three of these rules at will if you think of a cracker.

The near-infinite space of the web means that it's a less skilled job than it used to be. In the UK, the trend is towards SEO-friendly headlines which then infect the newspaper versions with their utter dullness. It's a sad decline. However, if you want some fun, you could do worse than search UK Press Gazette's headline of the month competition.

I always liked the corny genius of this one, about a football match between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Celtic:

"Super Cally go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious"

I bet the sub in question had been waiting years for Celtic to lose to Inverness to write that one.
posted by finisterre at 9:57 AM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: ...the trend is towards SEO-friendly headlines which then infect the newspaper versions with their utter dullness.

Oh, it's not just in the UK. It's everywhere. Hopefully Google can figure out a way combat SEO tactics, but in the meantime we're going through a dark time. Any tips on writing headlines that satisfy SEO and are witty would be greatly appreciated.
posted by me3dia at 10:11 AM on March 3, 2011

Best answer: Disclaimer: I'm terrible at headlines and I'm continuously amazed by the puns that The Daily Show folks pull off (i.e. "Mess-O-Potamia" et. al.).

I write for and edit a trade magazine, so my headlines can't be too punny and must convey the meat of the article. However, too boring is just as bad as too cute or too vague. My typical formula is [play on words]: [substantive title]

For example:

Innovation Incubation: A Look Inside the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center
A Rising Trend: Green Elevator Initiatives
Cooking With Gas: Loyola University Brews Up Some Biodiesel
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 10:35 AM on March 3, 2011

Headlines are a lot better with a verb. "Chicken heads an All American Meal," with heads read as a noun, is an example of sad verblessness.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 10:43 AM on March 3, 2011

Oblong Man Marries Normal Woman

Sometimes they write themselves.

But seriously, be alert to confusion that can arise from funny town names ... I lived near a town called "Person" for a while and there were all these headlines like "Person man missing" and I thought the headline writer seriously had a redudancy problem. Headlines involving Normal, Illinois, can be hugely amusing IF YOU ALREADY KNOW THEY'RE WRITING ABOUT NORMAL, but if you don't, it's just confusing. Who's your audience? In a local Normal newspaper it's probably a chuckler or a groaner, but in the Chicago Tribune it's a "Uh ... wut?"

Also, pet peeve, female sports teams (HS and college) are not "Lady Bulldogs" or "Lady Knights" or "Lady Spartans" unless the school specifically denotes them as that. (And if that's the case, the school needs to join the 21st century with the rest of us.) It's lazy, it's incorrect, it's sexist, and it's bad journalism. I prefer a slug that says "Women's Basketball" and then the headline to just say "Knights defeat Spartans" instead of "Lady Knights defeat Spartans" or whatever.

Also, Lady Bulldogs are bitches, and if we are insisting on genderizing our sports teams, I will be cheering, "GO BITCHES!" Much more badass.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:18 AM on March 3, 2011

(Person also invited headlines like, "Person objects to county sales tax hike" and "Person seeks highway funding" and "Person building new park" and they just read SO. WEIRD.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:19 AM on March 3, 2011

While the old NY Post and Variety headlines are cute, they don't do anything for web traffic. Don't try to be cute, or pun. Take a look at what's trending on Technorati, etc., and if your stories are on those same subjects, work in the popular terms.

You can be witty in a subhed. But if you want web traffic you have to play the game. Also this from 2007.

Charlie Sheen Nude with Gaga would probably work, too.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:25 AM on March 3, 2011

Oh, I thought of one more specific to sports: You don't mix mascots and locations when naming teams. So either "Bears defeat Cowboys" or "Chicago defeats Dallas" but never "Bears defeat Dallas." Unless actual bears besieged the city of Dallas until Dallas surrendered to their new ursine masters.

While not a hard-and-fast rule outside sports, it turns out to be a good thing to keep in mind when writing other headlines; if you're mixing cities and mayors, or individuals and corporate bodies, it can be confusing unless you're careful. So it's always good to say, "Is every entity in this headline the same type of entity? If not, is it clear or do I need to clarify?" Like "Mayor to Urbana: You must raise taxes." The mayor OF Urbana saying so is very different from the mayor of neighboring Champaign saying so because he's irate about, I don't know, property tax sharing towards fire services being out of balance or something. You'd be surprised how often headlines are unclear in this way (and similar ways), however. Easily fixed as "Champaign Mayor to Urbana: Blah blah" or "Mayor Smith to Urbana: Blah blah" or just "Champaign Mayor urges property tax hike for Urbana."

Champaign and Urbana do not, to my knowledge, have any shared taxing bodies. I just picked a pair of twin cities.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:26 AM on March 3, 2011

One of the best ways to boost traffic to an article online is to make the headline a question. This is a tactic that's explained well in that book "Made To Stick." Basically by asking a question, you make people aware of something they don't know. And we curious monkeys want to know something!

But don't be bratty or disingenuous about it. That's the hard part.

Just to take Eyebrows McGee's example of a story about a mayor planning to raise taxes, "Urbana's Mayor To Raise Taxes?" would work well. As would "Which Taxes Will Urbana Mayor Raise?" It gives you that itch to learn the answer.
posted by ErikaB at 11:42 AM on March 3, 2011

Response by poster: The flip side of that, ErikaB, is that almost any headline ending with a question can be answered with, "No."
posted by me3dia at 11:44 AM on March 3, 2011

Right, well, that's where the part about not being bratty or disingenuous comes in!

You wouldn't want to title it "Will Mayor Raise Taxes?" if the article is about how the mayor won't raise taxes. In that case, you'd want to use something like, "Why Won't Mayor Raise Taxes This Year?" or "Can We Get By Without Raising Taxes?"
posted by ErikaB at 11:57 AM on March 3, 2011

Eagles flog Cocks.
posted by workerant at 12:27 PM on March 3, 2011

I was working the copy desk at the English-language sister paper of a major Japanese daily when a story came in about a Shinto shrine which held a memorial service to burn up used bras. (If you have to ask why, you never lived in Tokyo.)

I will forever be proud of the headline I wrote that day: "Thanks for the Mammaries."
posted by ecourbanist at 7:07 PM on March 3, 2011

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