#107: How to Write Gripping Headlines

Dear Story Nurse,

It’s a small thing, but I need help understanding how to create compelling titles.

I’ve found a job writing articles and it pays me enough to make a living. Writing as paying gig is a new development for me; until recently, I’d really only written fiction as a private and unpaid hobby. Yet now I’m reporting on local government actions, generating updates on research projects in our area, and crafting biographies on notable residents.

It’s terrifying that I’m actually doing this and also amazing. My editor/boss has helped with the structure and flow of my articles, but I still have some anxiety about my abilities, particularly when it comes to crafting compelling (and concise) titles. I know that I will not lose my job over it, but my ineptitude in this area creates a lot of noise in my head regarding my skills. That head noise puts me on edge, making it difficult to get out of my own way and do my job.

I’ve written and rewritten titles as a writing exercise. It can take me an hour to get something mediocre; my boss can create one in ten seconds. To be fair to myself, he has been doing this years longer than I have. But I don’t have an hour to spare for every article.

Is there a titling manual I missed somewhere? Am I (or my anxiety) making this too difficult? Are there less formulaic exercises I can do? Do you know of a different approach other than rewriting the same thing over and over? An internet search points me to sites relying on formulas. My editor can’t describe his title creating process other than ‘just say what it is without giving it all away’ but also to be interesting while doing so.

For further clarity, my editor prefers titles that give a hint without telling the whole story. The title can be as few as two words and usually no more than eight. Subtitles can be up to another eight to nine words.

Thank you.

—New Here (she/her)

Dear New Here,

I’m guessing from your single quotes that you’re not in the U.S., and perhaps that’s why you’re using title where I would say headline. If you’re writing articles reporting on news, they need headlines (and subheds—yes, that spelling is correct). Your searches for information on writing good headlines may be more fruitful just with this change in terminology.

I’m sure you already know that 80% of this is going to be finding a way to put a volume control on the noise in your head. Working with a good therapist can help with that.

As for the other 20%: There are certainly formulaic ways to write news headlines, and that’s not a bad place to start. Formulas give you structure and an opportunity to practice with lower stakes. As the formula becomes second nature, you’ll start experimenting with it and coming up with your own style and clever innovations. But there’s nothing wrong with relying on formulas when you’re new.

Since concision is a challenge for you, try writing long, editing down, and then spicing up. Begin by summarizing the events in the article:

  • An Elderly Woman’s Beautiful Chicken Escaped, but Was Found Unhurt and Safely Returned to Her

Now remove the parts that you would consider spoilers if this were fiction:

  • An Elderly Woman’s Beautiful Chicken Escaped

Remove adjectives and adverbs that aren’t necessary to convey the heart of the story:

  • A Woman’s Chicken Escaped

Remove articles and put the headline in present tense, because that’s headline style:

  • Woman’s Chicken Escapes

Now, punch it up with terms that excite interest in your readership. Most readers of local news value local color, so make it clear that this is happening near you:

  • Bainsbridge Woman’s Chicken Escapes

Add words that press on readers’ emotions. Sex, money, violence, social status, strong feelings, and hot-button local topics all get the blood pumping:

  • Bainsbridge Millionaire’s Prize-Winning Chicken Escapes

And if you’re desperate to make something sound exciting, add words that directly convey excitement:

  • Drama in Bainsbridge as Millionaire’s Prize-Winning Chicken Escapes

I don’t know about you, but I’d click through to that article. The headline gives me just enough information to make me curious. (How much drama can there actually be over an escaped chicken? And I want to have a laugh over the absurd lifestyles of the wealthy.) That’s what a headline should do. Headlines are advertisements for articles, the display in the shop window that lures you into the shop.

Over time this process will become second nature, and you’ll start writing “Residents Outraged by Mayor’s Lackluster Traffic Plan” and “Deadly Main Street Fire Was Preventable, Chief Says” off the cuff. But until then, it’s fine to take longer than two seconds to write a headline; it’s fine to have a process or a formula or whatever helps you learn. If you need to, chant “no spoilers, local color, strong feelings” under your breath as you go, or write it on a sticky note and stick it to your work computer, or whatever works for you.

Two homework assignments for you:

Practice by writing headlines about events in your life. Enjoy the humor of finding ways to turn even the most mundane occurrence into something worth reporting.

  • Unmowed Lawn “Complete Disgrace”, Gossipy Neighbor Claims
  • Bainsbridge Baby Speaks First Word
  • Local Reporter Flummoxed by New Dishwasher: Manual Mysteriously Vanishes from Packaging

Subscribe to local news emails for several localities not your own. Patch serves about 1200 regions and sends out daily roundups for each one. Generate some ZIP codes at random and get free headline lessons in your inbox every day. As I write this post, these are the currently trending Patch headlines for Midtown Manhattan:

  • Be Donald’s Downstairs Neighbor In Trump Tower
  • GA Police Tase 87-Year-Old Woman Cutting Flowers
  • Realtor’s World-Traveled Sign Returns To NJ
  • Watch: TX Officer Rescues Injured, Stranded Hawk
  • Delivery Worker Saves Man With Beer And Empathy

There’s so much that makes those headlines work: location specificity, politics, pathos, warm fuzzies. Each one is designed to evoke a strong emotion in the reader. Play around with them and see how they change when you swap in other words, add words, take words out; read each one as a reader and see how it makes you feel and what it makes you curious about.

Be patient with yourself as you learn, and do keep working on treating your anxiety, because that will make everything much easier. The job and your boss sound awesome, and I hope you have many enjoyable years of doing what you love.

Happy headlining!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

2 thoughts on “#107: How to Write Gripping Headlines

  1. News editor here. All of the above is excellent advice, including the advice to go easy on yourself. Writing great headlines is a skill that comes with practice, which means *no one* is great at it when they first start out–and that *everyone* can get better. One small tip I can add from my experience: I find that there’s a lot of overlap between a great headline for an article and a great social media post for that article. There are some differences, but overall, both places have a similar goal of expressing the key idea of the story concisely. So you might also find helpful tips by searching for resources related to social media. PLUS once you master this skill, it will be useful and transferable to other kinds of writing!

    1. Thank you, Kristin—I haven’t worked on a newspaper in about 20 years so I’m glad to have your confirmation that my advice was on the right track. The social media tip is a great one!

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