How to master the art of headline writing

Posted under Advertising, Content, Email, PR, SEO, Social Media

Powerful and emotive – funny and ridiculous – shocking or sad: whatever the headline, make sure it grabs you or the reader in some way.

Now I come from a time where the main form of daily news was the newspaper, and as a journalist, headlines for me are not only fascinating to read but challenging and fun to write.

Headlines should provoke a reaction, and ultimately accurate headlines are the most important part of your writing – whether an article, a general piece of web content or a blog.

The history of headlines

Twenty (eh hem) or so years ago – there were no search engines, social media platforms or Google searches, so many written headlines were seen on newspapers and the billboards outside newsagents to tempt you to buy the paper.

Each newspaper will have its own style – some praised and other revered. A couple of my personal favourites from back in the day include two absolute classics from The Sun – ‘Gotcha’ (1982 and the sinking of the Belgrano during The Falklands War) and ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ from 1986 (not sure we need to go any further with that one).

As far as an actual number of words for a headline goes, there’s no real hard and fast rule – a single word or two eg ‘Terror’ (from the 9/11 attacks) or ‘Diana Dead’ can have the same desired or dramatic affect as a cleverly written string of words.

Together with a moving or powerful image, this has ‘sold’ your story before the reader reaches the first paragraph.

Pun-tastic or powerful: finding a style for your headlines

Headline writers use clever alliteration or a play on words to get a reaction, others get straight to the point with a thought-provoking question, leading some of the most iconic headlines ever written.

There’s also the more serious (and often slightly dull) side to headline writing – as often seen and mimicked on ‘Have I Got News For You’ – if your subject matter is very specialised or niche.

I guess there’s not much leeway when it comes to ‘Petrol Cap News’ (I’ve made that up by way!)

There’s writing newspaper headlines and there’s also writing headlines for a general press release, blog or any other content.

Personally, I like to create more of a play-on-words (as long as the subject matter allows me to and fits with the context of the copy).

So you could have;

‘Golfers getting into the swing for charity’

‘Raising funds is a piece of cake for budding bakers’

‘Top of the class for award-winning teachers’ – well you know the kind of thing.

I’ve also been responsible for a few headlines that have scored heavily on the groan-o-metre – things get egg-citing at Easter, Spook-tecular during Halloween and Christmas is always great for a cracker of a headline!

Advice for writing an attention-grabbing headline

You don’t have to be the best writer in the world to come up with a great headline.

Here are some pointers:

  • Before you start writing or tapping the keyboard – think about the actual story you want to tell or content you want to promote.
  • Who is your audience and what tone do you wish to speak to them in? For example, here is how some of the nationals reported the result of the Brexit referendum.
  • Grab attention – be clear about what you want to say and achieve.
  • Ask a question in your headline.
  • Make the title exciting.
  • Create your own style.
  • Use a bold typeface if you want to create a strong message.
  • If you are sending your copy to a third party to use (perhaps a press release for the local paper) make sure they will understand the story from the headline.
  • If you are using the copy for your own promotion or website, read it back to check it says exactly what you want it to.
  • Play around with the words and try out a couple before choosing one.
  • If you want to make a bold statement or create a reaction – use an exclamation mark!
  • Browse a selection of newspapers and magazine and see how others do it.
  • Remember – this is your big chance to hook the reader to keep them involved.
  • The right words and images to support your headline should provide you with a winning formula!

Here, I’ve focused on writing a headline that grabs the attention of a reader, which is crucial wherever your content is going to be placed. However, don’t forget that the vast majority of headlines for online content should take SEO and social media into consideration too. The Moz Blog has a very useful piece exploring all of this in more detail, as you’ll need to consider:

  • Keywords
  • Title length
  • User experience
  • Relevancy
  • And more!

Spotted a headline that made you chuckle or one that just caught your eye? Share it in the comments; I’d love to see them. After all, sometimes the best place to start when writing your own headline is with a bit of inspiration from others!

Cetti Long

Joining Media Matters in 1997, as a qualified journalist, Cetti’s skills as a writer make her a highly versatile member of the team.

During her career in PR and journalism, Cetti has met and interviewed many faces from both stage and screen – with rugby legend Kyran Bracken and Aussie celeb Peter Andre topping the list.

Fantastic at telling a story, and with a few to tell of her own, a highlight of Cetti’s career was a visit to Croatia in the mid-90s, just after the war; finding it very humbling turning the words of people she met into stories relevant to the newspaper she was working on at the time.

When she’s not singing (at full volume) in her car, Cetti is busy making friends and family laugh with her brilliant impressions – ‘in Italiano’ or English – and loves going to the theatre and eating out.