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Learn how to Write Good Headlines

A good headline for your article or essay is essential. It makes your reader want to read what you’ve written.

good headline

You probably know what happens when you read an attractive or interesting headline. You’ll read the article immediately. But what if the headline is confusing or uninteresting? Do you continue to read the article? Probably not. In this article we’ll learn some rules for writing good headlines. And I will show you plenty of bad headlines.

bad headline

Bad headline…

A good headline is necessary to draw your reader in your article. In many internet sites, the headline is the only thing people see. So if the headline is uninteresting, the potential reader will not even click on the link! In other cases, your article or essay is something that you pass to your teacher at school or your manager at work. If your headline is unclear, for instance because of a grammar mistake, your reader may already conclude that the rest of the article is going to be bad too. Not a good way to start, is it?

So now we already have two rules for a good headline:

1 Your headline should be clear.

Some headlines are not clear, not at all!

Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra dissolves

WTF! Dissolves means disappear, melt.

Always read your headline a few times and check whether your reader could understand it in any other way than you intended.

I read a headline in the newspaper a few days ago which went like this:

A medical company has developed a revolutionary new tool that could allow surgeons to close wounds without stitches or staples minimalizing scarring and risk of infection

Of course that’s fantastic news.

But upon reading this headline again, I had a few doubts.

What minimalizes the scarring and risk of infection: the revolutionary tool or the stitches or staples?

And does this mean that surgeons can only close wounds that don’t have stitches or staples? Probably that’s not what is meant here.

It’s obvious that the writer meant that the revolutionary tool minimizes the scarring and risk of infection. But it’s not entirely clear from the headline. The ambiguity (= when something can be understood in more than one way) could have been avoided by rewriting the headline, or by putting in a comma (,) and the word “using,” like this:

A medical company has developed a revolutionary new tool that could allow surgeons to close wounds without using stitches or staples, minimalizing scarring and risk of infection.

Because of the comma we understand that not the stitches or staples minimalize scarring and risk of infection, but the new tool.

And because of the word “using” we understand that we aren’t talking here about wounds without stitches or staples, but about a new way to avoid them.

Very often the confusion is caused by not making clear which verb belongs to which noun, as in this example: 

Proposed law would tax donations from foreign political entities to NGOs urging a boycott of Israel.

I had to read this headline several times, and even after that I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading. And I’m not even that dumb! 🙂

I cheerfully started reading the article to understand what was going on, but I gave up after two paragraphs, because the rest of the article wasn’t written any better.

Why is the headline so confusing?

Well, the first part I can understand: “Proposed law would tax donations.” Okay. But which donations? Do they mean donations from foreign political entities that urge a boycott of Israel? Or donations to NGOs that urge a boycott of Israel?

When you write your own headline, always check that the verb you write goes together with the subject, and that there’s isn’t any other noun in your headline that could go together with this same verb.

Here’s Rule 2:

2 Your headline should be interesting.

Especially students are guilty of writing dull headlines.

They will hand in an essay that is titled:

Living Standards and Reducing Environmental Impact

Yawn.

Or:

Music is My Life

Now there’s one more important rule to keep in mind when you write a headline:

3 Make sure the headline is related to the article.

It’s nice to write a witty headline, or with a few dramatic words in for diversion, but always remember that you want your reader to read your article and understand what it is about. If they can’t understand, they’ll stop reading.

So here is a bad example of that:

The Digits: 17,000%

You wouldn’t have guessed it, but the article under this headline was about the word selfie, which has been chosen as the Word of the Year 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries. The figure of 17,000% is the increase in usage of the word in the past year.

Another example:

Would you believe, Jerusalem?

I was unable to guess what this would be about, other than that it’s probably about the city of Jerusalem.

Oh, it’s just a bunch of photos of Jerusalem in the snow.

Being funny is good in a headline, but it’s less important.

Here is Rule number 4:

4 Your headline may have a nice joke in it. If there’s a play with words, so much the better. This is called a pun. But never use a pun at the expense of clarity (= being clear).

The German cake that’s stollen Christmas: FEMAIL’s master baker reveals the best place to buy yours

Here’s a nice pun: the German stuffed bread that they mean is called stollen. So with two l’s. But if you don’t know that word, and many people won’t, it looks like a spelling mistake.

Daniel the shelter dog that refused to die gets his own float at California parade after warming nation’s heart by emerging from pound’s gas chamber wagging his tail

This headline is kind of strange because of the association between “warming” hearts and “gas chamber.” Two ideas that don’t go well together, I think. The article that goes with it (in the Daily Mail) is also incomprehensible. Apparently, the dog was put in a closed box with carbon monoxide led into it, but the article doesn’t bother to tell why…

Another “funny” headline (or not funny at all (??)):

Popular Teen Shot in Face by First Love

Shot in face can mean red.

Or shot with a gun.

This headline may make you curious about what has really happened, but it’s also in bad taste. So in my view this is not a headline that I would recommend you to write.

I realize that I haven’t shown you too many good headlines, so I’ll do that some other time. Promise.

Practice

I’ve taken these awful, incomprehensible and/or bizarre headlines from the internet. Can you please improve them? 

You can check your answers at the bottom of this page.

1 Study ties eating nuts to lower cancer, heart death risk

2 Police report: Man arrested for everything

3 Severed finger points Glendale police to theft suspect

4 Duke University scientists find women need more sleep than men

5 Japan admits to Juicing Balls

6 Michael Douglas’ oral sex story goes viral

7 Big rig carrying fruit crashes on 210 Freeway, creates jam

8 Man Killed to Death

9 Human Remains Found

Scroll down for possible answers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Possible answers:

1 Study ties eating nuts to lower cancer and also to heart death risk

2 Police report: Man arrested for theft, felony and rape

3 Severed finger main clue for Glendale police to find theft suspect

4 Duke University scientists find women need more sleep than men do

5 Japan baseball team admits to Juicing Balls

6 Michael Douglas’ oral sex story takes over YouTube

7 Big rig carrying fruit crashes on 210 Freeway, creates traffic jam

8 Man Killed [delete: to Death]

9 Human Remains Found in [some place] 

 

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