September 25, 2005 / Copywriting / Fall 2005 / Five Simple Ideas

Five Simple Ideas for…Headline Writing

Written by Michael K. Frazier

Headlines set the mood and tone of a story, as well as hook the reader. As a rule, the main headline should be short and in present tense. If used, a secondary headline may be written in past tense, especially if it is placed after the main headline. The headline and lead paragraph should relate, but not repeat the same words. Now, consider these five ideas to generate greater reader interest.

1. Focus on the key thought.
If you could tell the reader only one thing about your subject in one sentence, what would it be? This is your key thought and a great place to begin looking for the words to include in your headline.

  • Capture the feeling of the story in a single word. Then explain or develop that idea in a single sentence. This sentence is your secondary headline.
  • Repeat the previous step, but now use two words. Consider making one of the words a strong or descriptive verb or adjective. Write a new secondary headline to develop the thought.
  • Repeat the exercise, but limit the headline to five words or less. Again, incorporate descriptive action verbs and adjectives that accurately capture the key thought, feeling or tone of the story.

2. Lead into or lead out of your key thought.
A secondary headline can come before or after the key thought.

  • If the key thought needs a little set-up, the secondary heading can be placed before the main heading. The key thought also might be the last word or two in the secondary headline. In this case, set the attention-grabbing words in large type, often on one line, to emphasize the key thought.
  • Secondary headlines typically are one sentence, without end punctuation.

3. Use action verbs, not labels.
Labels usually only tell what the reader can already see in the photos. Entice readers into the story with an action verb.

  • Be accurate in choosing your words. For instance, you can use “sprint” instead of “run” to describe a track meet race, but not for events longer than 400 meters.
  • Use “teaser” headlines to suggest an action without being too specific. A secondary headline can develop the idea, but should not reveal the whole story.

4. Play to emotions in the story.
Appealing to the reader’s emotions can capture their attention.

  • Be sure the emotional appeal is a natural extension of the story itself and not contrived.
  • If your story is a gripping drama describing heroic action, think of as many words or phrases as possible to reveal this in the headline. Likewise, if the story is about a joyous celebration, feature that concept. Avoid, however, clichés and over-used phrases.

5. Write a headline that bridges the main idea of the story to the dominant photo.
Packaging the dominant photo, headline and copy block to reinforce the key thought takes coordination between the copywriter, photographer and page designer to achieve great visual and verbal impact.

  • When covering athletic teams, find out the key players as early as possible. Photographers should take plenty of photos of these people since they are likely to be linked to the main idea of the story. Once the storyline is established, select a photo that coordinates with it. Finally, write a headline that represents the main idea of the story and links verbally with the action in the photo.
  • When covering academic, organization and student life events, determine the story angle as early as possible. Again, consider if there are key people involved and track them to the end of the deadline. You may not be able to photograph every participant, so finding the key thought as early as possible will make the job easier.

 

Michael K. Frazier

Michael Frazier is a retired former yearbook and newspaper adviser from Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Indiana. Frazier spent 30 years at Hanover Central, where his staffs and yearbooks earned national honors. He was chosen as a Distinguished Adviser by JEA in 1997.