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Writing headlines for print

(Based on a lecture by Ross Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University)

The title above a story in a newspaper, magazine ornewsletter is called a headline, or “hed” (“head”) in print journalism, or a “heading” in online pages. It has the same function in mass media writing as a lead, to call attention to the story, to snare people in. I often say mass media publications rely on four objects to entice readers into a story, in this order:

  • photo or illustration, to catch the reader’s attention;
  • headline;
  • deck, pull quote, or other descriptive block;
  • lead.

If you can get the reader through the lead, chances are fairly good he or she will read the rest of the story. Headlines writers who are good at what they do have something in common, I think, with advertising copy writers. They must be accurate, entertaining, pithy and, if possible, clever–all in limited space. What seems unfair is that neither one can put his or her byline on the work.

Headlines need to be accurate, first, and to fairly reflect the theme of the story. Most readers don’t realize that those who write stories, the reporters, seldom write their own headlines. They may suggest headlines, but more often space needs or other considerations force an editor to fashion something different.

What’s more, headlines are too often inaccurate, or biased. When a story is inaccurate, the reporter gets blamed, and takes the complaints. As he should. When a headline is inaccurate, most people assume the reporter wrote it. So again, the writer gets the complaints, unfairly. Ethical editors (who also don’t want those whiny reporters on their case) take care with their headlines. So if you have the choice between being lively and being accurate, well, accuracy has to come first.

Headlines fall into two categories: standard and label.

Standard headlines are the kind of heads we’re used to from a lifetime of exposure to print media. It’s really odd that we’re so accepting of this approach, as it’s not at all conversational. You see a car accident. You tell a friend: “Car hits two pedestrians today.” No you don’t. You say, “Wow, I saw a car hit two pedestrians outside the mini-mall today!” Nevertheless, head-speak is different. A standard headline:

  • uses subject-verb-direct object format, or occasionally passive voice. Think action verb.
  • eliminates articles (a, an, the).
  • includes verbs in the present tense (or sometimes future tense).

Even if it happened in the past, we emphasize present tense, perhaps because in the media business we want to emphasize NOW, not old stuff that already happened. It sounds more fresh to write “Mayor supports zoning proposal” than “Mayor supported zoning proposal at meeting.” A standard head in active voice, then, could be something like “Twins win 2 in opener.” “President supports tax cut bill.” “Senator vows to fight sugar proposal.” You can use passive voice, perhaps because it fits the space better, but it’s not as lively: “Tax cut bill supported.” Note that AP style doesn’t apply to heads–numerals are okay, abbreviations, but avoid unfamiliar references. You might recognize that “NRA proposal draws criticism” refers to National Rifle Association, but “AEJMC meets in Minneapolis” would likely be familiar only to types like me (who belong to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication).

Editors usually stick to serious heads for serious news stories. Lighter fare or feature stories might call for different treatment. That’s when good headline writers can prove that they could make a lot more money writing advertising copy, should they wish to stoop so low. “From hell to high honor.” (Grand Forks Herald wins Pulitzer Prize.) “Carolers ring in Christmas season.” (Feature on high school group.) “Poet Nash, first name Ogden; he is gone but not forgogden.” (Obituary in the style of the famous poet.)

A second general category of head is the label head, or title. Even though we’re familiar with these as book titles, for some reason editing students seem to have a harder time with them. A label headline:

  • has no verb;
  • may have articles.

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