Not even the best headline writer can save a dying publication. But failing to master the art of headline writing can be the difference between upping your readership and losing your reader to the next story on the page or screen. A headline must convey in a handful of words what your article is about. You have just one chance to get it right.
These days most reporters do not have the luxury of a supportive editorial staff for fact checking, polishing grammar and writing headlines. Lousy headline writers are increasingly finding themselves sidelined by those who can churn out effortlessly catchy heds.
See what some local Austin writers have to say about this art, including how to get it right and – just as important – how easy it is to get it wrong.
Some do’s and don’ts of headline writing
Provide something catchy, says Sarah Thurmond, senior editor at Austin Monthly. “I’ll play around with clichés, words or phrases that rhyme, movie titles, idioms.” Thurmond is responsible for editing the magazine’s talk section and events guide.
Monica Riese, an assistant news editor for the Austin Chronicle, states that a headline has to have a hook. “If readers can’t decipher the jargon or easily discern what the news is, they won’t read on,” she says. Riese has been with the Chronicle since 2008. In a 2012 article about election deadlines, Riese wrote, “Run(-off), Don’t Walk.” Following it up with this simple dek, “Voter registration deadline approaching.”
Patrick George, a day police reporter for the Statesman, suggests that a headline must grab your readers’ attention. “You have to get creative and include as much detail from the story as you can.” In 2009, George wrote this headline about a local politician’s visit to an area supermarket: “Lloyd Dogget faces angry crowd at Randalls.” Short, sweet, descriptive.
Include how or why in the headline, suggests Andrea Valdez, deputy web editor at Texas Monthly. “If possible, use one of the following words as it promises an explanation: How or Why,” says Valdez, who writes most of the web headlines for the online magazine.
For a blotter concerning animal cruelty, George wrote “Man threw puppy at wall after losing basketball game.” This type of in-your-face headline writing catches a lot more attention than just blandly saying, “Man charged with animal cruelty,” George explains.
Let other writers lead the way, suggests Brian Sweany, who became deputy editor at Texas Monthly in 2009. “I’ll find myself flipping through old issues or looking at other magazines for inspiration.” Sweany admits that writing headlines is one of the hardest parts of the job.
It’s not rocket science
Rindy Weatherly, an assistant news editor at the Statesman, recommends avoiding uncertainty. “Choose lively words — short, active, with some spark. Stay away from ambiguous words and anything that many readers would need to look up in a dictionary.”
Rose Cahalan, assistant editor at the Alcalde magazine, boils headline writing down to its most essential essence, “Compelling, accurate, short equals holy trinity.” By day, Cahalan is an editor at UT’s alumni magazine and a freelance editor and tutor by night. “A good dek gives you more freedom in the hed, too,” Cahalan explains. A dek is a sub-headline that gives more detail about the article. “Come Hotel or High Water,” is a recent Alcalde headline for an article about a South Austin hotelier planning her state-wide expansion.
Do not deceive your audience, suggests Adam Schragin, Austinist editor in chief. “Some publications like to tantalize their readers with clearly misleading headlines, and I feel like that’s a risky proposition to undertake. People don’t like being fooled,” warns Schragin, who has written for the online publication since 2007.
What are some of your tricks of the headline-writing trade? Let us know how you come up with your most creative, or straight forward, heds and desk.
Bridget Carter, PWA editorial assistant, is currently working on her bachelors in forensic science and English writing and rhetoric from St. Edward’s University. Living in Austin, Texas for 12 years, Carter has become philanthropically involved in the community by volunteering at organizations such as Frontsteps Homeless Center and the Austin State Mental Hospital. She is a writer for the Hilltop Views Newspaper.