5 Tips for Writing Great Headlines

Tip 1: Have a benefit that is clear.

That is exactly what I did with the headline on this post. I told you I was going to give you five tips for writing great headlines. Full disclosure: These are not my tips, but rather those of Richard Haddad, digital director of Western News & Info, who presented on the topic at the 2012 NFPW Communications Conference in Arizona.

Headlines that focus on benefits such as “better, easier and happier” will get more attention. Lists also are popular, Haddad said, because they become a “how-to” for readers.

Tip 2: Avoid the seven deadly flag words.

Haddad challenged his audience to write a headline with the following words: budget, council, agenda, meeting, taxes, discuss, still. We labored over the assignment but most of were thinking, “What do these words tell us?”

The answer, Haddad said, “is they don’t tell you anything.”

“A bad headline is a lid to a jar that will remain locked,” Haddad said. “If no one reads, all is lost.”

And yet the goal of a headline is to entice the reader into the article. His recommendation is for reporters to always submit two headlines when submitting a story.

Tip 3: Optimize your headlines for web readers and search engines.

You will need to inject keywords into the headline. “The headline alone must provide enough information scent to let users predict what they’ll get if they follow the link,” Haddad said.

As authors we have about three seconds to catch the reader’s attention, Haddad said. Using clear, immediate-read keywords to draw people into the story is essential.

Tip 4: Get the first two words right.

Haddad said it’s important to front-load headlines with compelling keywords, even if the headline is passive voice. Several audience members cringed at that having been taught to always write in the active voice. Yet, when Haddad showed several examples where headlines were written in the passive voice, it was obvious those examples were more compelling because the strong keywords were immediately recognizable. As Haddad said, “Get me the meat!”

This tip also holds true for subheads, summaries, captions and bulleted lists.

Tip 5: Write your headline first.

That’s exactly what I did with this blog. I reviewed my notes to confirm that Haddad had indeed provided the audience with five tips and that became my headline.

Haddad said more news writers should follow the practice of marketing copywriters, which is 50 percent research and 50 percent writing the headline. Of course, writers need time to write, but the point is – headlines are critical.

“Your headline is a promise to readers,” Haddad said. “Writing the headline first, commits you to fulfilling a promise.”

What if you attended a boring meeting? Haddad’s solution is simple, don’t write a story. Instead create a grid that outlines what was discussed and the actions taken. If one action stands out that becomes the story with a compelling headline.

I hope you agree that with the content of this blog I kept my promise to you that I made in my headline.

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2 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing Great Headlines

  1. glennis555@aol.com says:

    Thanks, Cynthia. I was sorry to miss this session and hoped someone would recap it in print. Haddad was a powerful presenter in the panel discussion of digital news and the future of journalism.

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