WANTED: better headlines
August 22, 2011 1:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I write better headlines for my college newspaper?

I work for my college newspaper as senior copy editor and head the paper's copy team. One of our biggest problems is writing effective and catchy headlines. Can anyone recommend good websites/books (or offer any tips) to help us? Thanks in advance!
posted by gypsyhymns to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
All my headline prowess comes from a daily (and educational!) flip through the New York Post and the Daily News.

You don't want to mimic the content, just the form. Tabloids have more, hmmm, visual clutter? Which usually translates to more headlines and more of that weird header jargon to make things fit ("DEAN REAMS TEAM FOR COURTSIDE SCENE." "'RABID HONEYBADGER' SEZ POL'S BORO HONEY." etc.) I find that your more respectable papers have more respectable (read: boring) heads, and fewer of them, strictly due to layout.

I often play with my headlines and come up with five or six drafts. Eighty percent of that is because I'm manipulating space on the page, but it's also made me more facile with the heads. I guess if I was going to change that into an exercise, I would have some kind of regular training where you all read an article and then write five or six heads for it. It's the kind of thing that really responds to practice.

Catchy is good; funny is pretty difficult. What's funny in the newsroom an hour before deadline to a bunch of strung-out copy editors is stupid, puerile and uninformative to readers the next day, even college students. (I, uh, was possibly talked out of a "What up, Thome?" headline once. Or this weekend. Whichever.) Worry more about "effective" than "catchy."

You'll never top this one, so don't even try, but absolutely print it out and paste it around the office for inspiration.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:55 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

7 Ways to Write Super Catchy Headlines.

In general there are a lot of articles out there that help you improve blog writing, and I would image at least 50% of the info translates to newspapers.
posted by pyro979 at 1:56 PM on August 22, 2011

I've found Copyblogger to be very helpful.
posted by MexicanYenta at 1:57 PM on August 22, 2011

You should read some of Harry Evans' old books, including, obviously, News Headlines.

In general I think you should be reading the Independent and the Telegraph and other English papers, and also you should be reading deep in the archives of the New York Observer.

So the way you do it is this: either via IM with friends or on paper, you get all worked up and start tossing around ideas, until you find one that everyone thinks is hilarious or awesome.

SPOILER: the thing that you've been calling the piece in your head or around the office? That is usually a good piece of the headline. "Hey, are you guys done with that story about the guy in the cafeteria with the machete?" Boom: GUY WITH MACHETE IN CAF.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:10 PM on August 22, 2011

It's a bit of a cop-out, but the papers I've worked on have mostly used a strap ie. a second, much smaller subheadline in which the story is more fully explained. Gives the subs much more freedom to write a headline that is witty or eyecatching without it having to explain the story on its own.

Also, what kind of headline is it you want? There's more than one style, and if you decide what the house style is, that narrows down your options. In the UK a lot of the broadsheet headlines just do what RJ Reynolds says - tell you what the story's about - in plain, succinct language. Tabloid headlines are very different, and are all about the wordplay, the "Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious" school of headline writing, which is an art in itself.
posted by penguin pie at 4:14 PM on August 22, 2011

At voiceofsandiego.org, we recently did a non-public analysis of our headlines to see which sorts do the best on Yahoo News, which is a strikingly large source of traffic for any news site that can get on to their news pages. We looked at headlines that were successful over the first six months of this year, during which many thousands of clicks were recorded. Our findings confirm what you may read elsewhere.

Common traits of good headlines:

--they are easy to understand

--they present an idea that is opposite to conventional wisdom or the current way of things, or indicate overturning of (or resistance to) the establishment order

--indicate some extreme, high or low, and use superlatives

--use few waffling, caveating, caviling, or namby-pamby words

--state their subjects plainly, especially if they are important to a lot of people or to a specific community of people (so mentioning the local sports teams always works well)

--have the potential to provoke outrage

--allow for more than one reading: one tame, one wild; one true, one false; one true, one jokey, etc.

A couple things are not mentioned here and were not a factor in this report because we avoid them already:

One, we rarely use acronyms or initialisms in headlines.

Two, we almost never use people's names in headlines unless they are in the very upper tier of the famous or well-known. On a local level, that means City Council, the mayor, a few very wealth philanthropists and that's pretty much it.

Three, we avoid puns, clichés, alliteration and jokes.

By the way, what works well in heds and subheds also works well in link text when you’re making URLs in new copy. Link text also attracts the eye, informs the reader, and serves as a summary.
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:26 PM on August 22, 2011

Ask the people at Testy Copy Editors. They do it for a living, have about a million years of collective experience, and are not shy with their opinions.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:37 PM on August 22, 2011

Talk to the authors of the stories to make sure that what you're putting in the headline actually makes sense in the context of the piece and emphasizes the right angle. The reporter should be the expert on the story and should be able to help you with that.
posted by Aizkolari at 5:40 AM on August 23, 2011

Actually, the reporter should be suggesting headlines. More than one, if possible. I realize that's an anathema to many journalists but it's the way the way good headlines are hammered out: start with the person who knows the story best, run the headline options past an editor or two, let the copydesk give it tweaks, repeat until perfect.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:23 PM on August 26, 2011

« Older Internet radio killed the satellite radio star   |   Anaheimlich Maneuvers, OR Cuatro Gueros Locos, OR... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.