Darren Richardson

Nov. 22, 2011

In online media, as in print, a strong headline is a crucial tool for drawing readers into the story. In print, that means continuing to read what’s below the headline. Online, it means clicking on a headline link that takes readers to the full story.

At most print publications, copy editors are paid to write headlines for the stories that make it into the paper. Reporters, as a rule, do not write the headlines for their own stories. But what applies to print does not always apply online.

Allvoices writers have a unique opportunity to take control of the whole package, headline included. This report is designed to help Allvoices writers write good headlines and take an interest in well-crafted headlines, both in print and online.

At Allvoices, your article’s URL is generated based on the headline you give your report. The URL is unique to your report and helps search engines determine how to classify, sort and rank your report.

For example, let’s say you write a report about President Obama visiting Seattle and Portland, and you give it a non-specific headline like “Off to the West Coast he goes.” Because of its headline, that report may not be given very much weight in searches for “Obama West Coast” or “Obama Seattle Portland.” When it comes to being found in searches, URLs are like supercharged keywords, so it’s important to spend some time considering which words to include in your headline. Once you publish your report, changing an article’s headline won’t change its URL, so choose your words carefully the first time.

The human element is just as important -- maybe more so

At the same time, a headline written solely for search engines without taking into account other elements of the headline-writing craft usually falls flat and isn’t very inviting to most readers, even if they do find your story through a search. The best headlines are the ones you have fun writing, whether they come to you in an instant or you have to spend some time getting them exactly right. As a rule of thumb, headlines on Allvoices should probably be one or two lines – longer than that and the headline may feel too heavy visually.

To become a better headline writer, start by reading more headlines. Whether you’re browsing your favorite website or reading your local paper, pay attention to what naturally grabs your attention as you skim the pages. What kinds of verbs catch your eye? Which headlines seem more exciting than others? Are headlines with two lines of roughly the same length more appealing to the eye than imbalanced headlines?

Make mental notes of what you observe or, if you are prone to carrying a pen and notebook with you, jot down thoughts and ideas while reading. There is no right or wrong approach to improving your headline-writing skills; simply by beginning to appreciate the power of a strong headline, you are already on the right path to writing good ones yourself.

Following the preferred style

If you are looking at a newspaper, it may be easier to notice the so-called “style” of the headlines. Does each word begin with a capital letter, for example, or just the headline’s first word and the subsequent proper nouns? In the interest of uniformity, Allvoices uses the uppercase-lowercase style. “Obama jets to Portland, Seattle for back-to-back rallies,” rather than “Obama Jets To Portland, Seattle For Back-To-Back Rallies.” Allvoices will change headlines to the uppercase-lowercase style for reports accepted into the Select Media program and for reports that make it onto the home page.

In his 1938 classic “Think and Grow Rich,” Napoleon Hill wrote about a publisher of 5-cent books who replaced a bland, boring title of a book that wasn’t selling with another, more exciting title. The publisher didn’t change the inside of the book, yet the new title had “box office” value and led to huge sales.

The same principle can be applied to headlines. You just might find the more attention you pay to the quality of your headline, the more people you will have reading your story.

Sources and resources:

“Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill (PDF)

"Writing Effective Headlines," Kansas University website

"1,000 headlines in 460 days," poynter.org

"Headline writing for the Web," jprof.com

"How to Write Headlines That Work," copyblogger.com

Additional Allvoices Writers' Resources reports:

"Linking to reports improves reiliability of your reports," Nov. 30, 2011

"Commenting on other reports builds community, leads to additonal interest in your work," Dec. 31, 2011