Down with Deb Ng! Headline Writing 101

Picture 14Headlines are an important, often overlooked part of article writing. They are what prompt readers to click the link, pick up the magazine or buy the paper. Blog posts, magazine articles and news articles have unique characteristics that will be addressed individually in follow-up posts, but there are a few guidelines that apply across the different styles and medium of the articles.

Interesting & Descriptive

Headlines should attract reader’s attention while giving a brief overview of the article’s content. Sounds easy right? Well, given the dearth of boring and vague headlines in media there’s got to be more to it. A headline should:

  • Include action words. Tell readers to stop doing something, start doing something, give something, take something, learn something – spur them to action and translate that action to reading.
  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations or profanity. Unless writing for a specialized niche publication in which it is assumed all the readers will have a working knowledge of your niche language or abbreviations/acronyms, don’t use it.
  • Be creative. When not a news headline, which tend to be very clear cut and straight forward, interesting plays on words or catchy titles work in grabbing a reader’s attention.
  • Use punctuation. Commas, for example can be used instead of the word “and” in headlines. Utilize limited headline space by eliminating word clutter.
  • Avoid exclamation points *most of the time. There are some exceptions, but most articles with exclamation points either cry of desperation or sales pitchy-type pieces. If you use one, make it count!

Non-Inflammatory & Clear

“Down with Deb Ng!” I’ve used an exclamation point, unclear language and inflammatory wording to get to you to click the link for this article. It worked, you’re here and it’ll probably work on the search engines. The problem is, the article is not about Deb (a true sweetheart), it was truly only written to prove a point – there are inflammatory, wildly inaccurate headlines all over publications today. This causes a problem for writers, publications and their readers because when you pull a bait and switch it is not only annoying, you’re readers begin to distrust your work and your wolf cries begin fade into the background of the rest of the media noise.

The post title is also unclear. “Down with Deb Ng!” could mean I’m banding together with a group of wild freelancers to crush poor Deb under our boot or it could also mean that “Right on, I’m down (or supporting) Deb Ng!”

The other no-no of this headline is I’m clearly using the Google juice of Deb’s name to boost the blog hits. All around it’s a stinker of a headline and readers are not stupid, they can smell sensationalism a mile away and are usually annoyed by it.

Take the time and make your headlines a priority not an afterthought. The next few blog posts will cover the specifics of writing headlines for different types of articles including blog posts, magazine articles and news.

When do you write your headline, before or after you write the article?





8 responses
  1. Deb Ng Avatar

    Well, you had me worried there for a second. I’m glad I don’t have to fire you. 🙂

    Nothing is more disappointing than following a headline and finding it has nothing to do with the story. Excellent example, excellent pos.
    .-= Deb Ng´s last blog ..The Argument Against Multiple Blogging =-.

    1. Terreece Clarke Avatar

      LOL! No way! I’m bold, but that takes ovaries bigger than mine to go “hater” on my boss’s blog about her. Plus I don’t have anything naughty to blog about you… I guess that hasn’t stopped folks before huh Deb? 🙂

  2. Kymlee Avatar

    We had a huge discussion about headline writing in our office recently. It really is a balancing act to create headlines that are catchy/interesting, a call to action and descriptive is definitely an art. I usually write headlines after I’ve written or edited an article.

    1. Terreece Clarke Avatar

      There are a couple news sites that are gaining a reputation for sensational headlines that don’t match up with the article information. They’ve even changed some headlines after reader complaints. The ‘art’ of headline writing is falling by the wayside while the ‘cash’ for link clicks are going up…

  3. Deb Avatar

    I was worried for a moment (I love Deb Ng!), but your headline did make me want to click to see what you had to say…

    I totally agree about the disappointment of headlines not reflecting the story contents. You always have GREAT information on this site!

    Deb (not Ng)

    1. Terreece Clarke Avatar

      Thanks Deb! I’m interested in seeing the residual traffic this link will generate as well…Not matching the content to the title makes me wonder about the agenda of the publication. Is it just about the money, ratings or clicks? Are you really interested in disseminating information or creating buzz and controversy?

  4. Deb Carr Avatar
    Deb Carr

    I agree with you regarding the agenda of the publications that have misleading headlines. I worked for a very small newspaper (many years ago), and the most fun I had there was listening to the reporters bandy about ideas for headlines for the “news”. I had been an English major (literature, not journalism), and it made me realize the importance of “packaging” the entire article concept into one short sentence! Staying true to the concept should be simple, so the suspect publications must have an agenda, IMHO.

  5. Anne Wayman - About Freelance Writing Avatar

    Headline writing is not one of my strengths… maybe I’ll try a down with Anne approach 😉

    These tips are helpful, thanks.
    .-= Anne Wayman – About Freelance Writing´s last blog ..Copyrights, The Web, & Visual Arts =-.

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