The Science of Headline Writing
1. No. 1 Rule: Headlines must tell the reader what the story's about
2. Headlines must be accurate
3. Headlines must be fair
4. Headlines must fit and fill the space allotted
5. The headline’s tone must be consistent with the nature of the story
6. The headline’s tone must be consistent with the personality of the publication
7. The headline can't say more than the story says
8. In other words, the story must support the headline
9. The headline needs to persuade the reader to read the story.
Headline Checklist – Things to Avoid
1. Inappropriate language or a tone that doesn't fit the story.
2. Exaggerating conflict, danger, criticism, etc.
3. Editorialization or words that suggest an opinion of the head-writer.
4. A "negative" head using the word "not.“
5. Conclusions the story doesn't back up.
6. Inappropriate assumptions or interpretations.
7. Piled-up adjectives or other modifiers that detract from clarity.
8. A "label head," unless omitting the verb helps the head or the count is so short that a "book title" head is the only way out.
9. Assumptions that the reader has been following the story daily.
10. Obscure names that readers won't instantly recognize.
11. Undue familiarity, often by using a person's first name.
12. Abbreviations or acronyms that are not instantly recognizable.
13. Jargon, which clouds the meaning for readers.
14. Cliches, which are neither creative nor compelling.
15. Meanings the reader won't "get" until the story is read.
16. Echoing the lede or stealing the punchline.
17. A hard-news head based on facts far down in the story.
18. Puns in heads on serious news stories.
19. Putting first-day heads on second-day stories.
20. Using "question" or "colon" heads routinely.
An Interview With John McIntyre
John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society ACES and an assistant managing editor at the Baltimore Sun. He likened writing headlines to a combination of playing Scrabble and completing a crossword puzzle.
Q: What should readers reasonably expect from headlines?
McIntyre: Accuracy, clarity and precision. Liveliness and originality are important to capturing the reader's interest, but they are secondary to accuracy.
Q: What challenges do copy editors face in meeting those expectations?
McIntyre: There is seldom enough time to polish and refine headlines as much as copy editors would like. And the lack of time also comes up against the fundamental challenge: distilling the sense of an entire article into half a dozen words.
Q: What are the uppermost cardinal rules of good headline writing?
McIntyre: Try to follow the vocabulary and syntax of conversational English insofar as you can. Avoid headlinese ("Solons slate parley") and wretched, obvious wordplay ("purr-fect" for any story about cats).
Q: What was the worst headline?
McIntyre: You want to write a famous headline? Write a bad one. "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" is still the most famous headline in American journalism.