The Secret to Writing Great Headlines for Your News Stories

Woman wearing funny sunglasses reading newspaper on bench in the city
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You've edited a news story for grammar, AP Style, content and so on, and are laying it out on the page, or about to upload it to your website. Now comes one of the most interesting, challenging and important parts of the editing process: writing a headline.

Writing great headlines is an art. You can bang out the most interesting article ever written, but if it doesn't have an attention-grabbing headline, it's likely to be passed over. Whether you're at a newspaper, news website, or blog, a great headline (or "hed") will always get more eyeballs scanning your copy.

A Challenging Endeavor

The challenge is to write a head that's as compelling, catchy and detailed as possible, using as few words as possible. Headlines, after all, have to fit the space they're given on the page.

Headline size is determined by three parameters: the width, defined by the number of columns the hed will have; the depth, the meaning is the head one line or two (known by editors as a "single deck" or a "double deck";) and the font size. Headlines can run anywhere from something small - say 18 point - all the way up to banner front-page heds that can be 72 points or bigger.

So if your head is designated as a 36 point three-column double-decker, you know it will be in a 36 point font, running across three columns and with two lines. Obviously, there are many different kinds of fonts; Times New Roman is one of the fonts most commonly used in newspapers, but that's something each individual paper or website decides on.

So if you're assigned to write a five-column, two-line, 28 point double-deck hed, you know you're going to have a lot more room to work with that if you're given a two-column, one-line hed in a 36 point font.

Whatever the length, the headline should be the best one possible within the space allotted.

Unlike newspaper pages, stories on websites can, in theory at least, be much longer, since space is less of a consideration. No one wants to read a headline that goes on forever, and website headlines need to be just as catchy as ones in print. Indeed, headline writers for websites use Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, to try to get more people to view their content.

Here are some headline-writing tips to follow:

Be Accurate

This is most important. A headline should entice readers but it shouldn't oversell or distort what the story is about. Always stay true to the spirit and meaning of the article.

Keep It Short

This seems obvious; headlines are by nature short. But when space limitations aren't a consideration (as on a blog, for instance) writers sometimes get verbose with their heads. Shorter is better.

Fill the Space

If you're writing a headline to fill a specific space in a newspaper, avoid leaving too much empty space (what editors call white space) at the end of the head. Always fill the specified space as best you can.

Don't Repeat the Lede

The headline, like the lede, should focus on the main point of the story. But if the head and the lede are too similar the lede will become redundant. Try to use slightly different wording in the headline.

Be Direct

Headlines aren't the place to be obscure; a direct, straightforward headline gets your point across more effectively.

Use Active Voice

Remember the Subject-Verb-Object formula from news writing? That's also the best model for headlines. Start with your subject, write in the active voice, and your headline will convey more information using fewer words.

Write in Present Tense

Even if most news stories are written in the past tense, headlines should almost always use the present tense.

Avoid Bad Breaks

A bad break is when a hed with more than one line splits a prepositional phrase, an adjective, and noun, an adverb and verb, or a proper name.


Obama hosts White
House dinner

Obviously, "White House" should not be split from the first line to the second. Here's a better way to do it:

Obama hosts dinner
at the White House

Make Your Headline Appropriate to the Story

A humorous headline may work with a lighthearted story, but it most definitely wouldn't be appropriate for an article about someone being murdered. The tone of the headline should match the tone of the story.

Know Where to Capitalize

Always capitalize the first word of the headline and any proper names. Don't capitalize every word unless that's the style of your particular publication.