Add the perfect topping to your creation: Do not disrespect the headline

Nuts? Whipped cream? Caramel sauce?  No, silly! It’s the headline.

Long form writing gets plenty of attention, but when is the last time you thought about your short form? The really, really, really, really short form?

Do not disrespect the headline – it’s often the hardest working set of syllables on the page or screen.

Clearly in today’s fire hose of information, readers are blasted with emails, tweets, blogs, sales pitches and even news. Make your writing stand out with the best headline possible.

In some cases the headline is added by someone other than the writer. Do yourself a favor and learn how to write good headlines – or at least give it a try.

The dedicated headline writer of yore is now being asked to design pages, code html, post copy online and tend to a host of other duties not necessarily related to the quality of your prose. Give her something good to work with.

Meanwhile here are a few tips that will help you and your headline rise above the rest. Some of the standards of the print headline (where I cut my teeth) have fallen by the wayside in our onscreen lives. Some are even more important. No one will agree with all of my ideas, but take a look anyway.

Naturally you will want to start with an accurate, grammatically correct set of words. You’ll want to end up that way, too, so make sure you check these basics with every change.

  • Keep it tidy. Five to six words is often ideal.
  • Use active voice and simple sentence structure.
  • Avoid the mud. Use hard-working verbs and vivid images.
    • NO: Medical test results surprising
    • YES: Surgeon spots nail in skull X-ray
  • Resist the urge to pun. Puns seldom translate on the screen and they are terrible for SEO.
  • If you are concerned about clicks and SEO, use a keyword in the headline.
  • Don’t even think about throwing in superlatives. The best, the largest, richest, strongest are never as effective as a specific description.
    • No: Fullback strongest in school’s history.
    • Yes: Fullback lifts Chevy’s weight daily.
  • While you are at it, please banish unique and the mortifying most unique.
  • Cliches are tempting, but so overused. Um, that’s why they are called cliches. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him … It’s not that clever, trust me.
  • Keep the promise of your headline.  Do you know how angry it makes me when you call your How-To article Sure-fire secret solutions to looking young and then send me on a wild goose chase through link after link of more articles?
  • One final reminder: Read your headline with a dirty mind. Make sure that the words you put together don’t conjure up an image you didn’t intend.

More on the craft of headline writing:

How to Write Headlines that Work. Tips from Copyblogger.
10 questions to help you write better headlines. From the Poynter Institute.
American Copy Editors Society award winners from professional newspaper headline writers

Sandra Kleinsasser, PWA May/June guest blog editor, loves bringing order from chaos as an editor and organizer. She managed content and people as Executive News Editor at the Austin American-Statesman through many periods of rapid change, pounding deadlines and breaking news. She is now available as a communications consultant and problem solver. Learn more about her at or email [email protected]