The Secret to Writing Great Headlines for Your News Stories

Learn to write proper news story headlines

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 preparing to press "Upload." Now comes one of the most interesting, challenging, and important parts of the editing process: writing a headline.

Writing great news story 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 on your copy.

A Challenging Endeavor

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

In newspapers, headline size is determined by three parameters: the width (defined by the number of columns the hed will have), the depth (whether it gets one line or two, called "single deck" or "double deck," respectively), and the font size. Headlines can run anywhere from something small—like 18 point—all the way up to banner front-page heds that can be 72 points or bigger.

So, if your hed is designated as a 28-point, three-column double-decker, you know that it will be in a 28-point font, running across three columns, and with two lines. That means you'll have a lot more room to work with than if you were given a larger font or only one line.

Unlike newspaper pages, stories on websites have fewer restrictions since space is less of a consideration. Still, no one wants to read a headline that goes on forever, and website headlines need to be just as catchy as ones in print. Plus, headline writers for websites must consider search engine optimization, or SEO, to try to get more people to view their content.

Guidelines for Writing News Headlines

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 heds. 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 at the end of the head. This is called "white space" and it should be minimized.

Don't Repeat the Lede

The headline, like the lede, should focus on the main point of the story. However, if the hed and the lede are too similar, the lede will become redundant. Try to use 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 than something overly creative.

Use the Active Voice

Remember the subject-verb-object formula for 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 noun. For example:

Obama hosts White
House dinner

Obviously, "White House" should not be split between the two lines. 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 nouns. Don't capitalize every word unless that's the style of your particular publication.