Studies consistently find that readers notice first the boldest, brightest, briefest elements on the page or screen (as if we needed studies to tell us this).
That means, unfortunately for writers, that readers are first attracted by anything that isn’t text: enlarged, colorful or specialty type; photos and photo captions; art and graphics; design elements such as white space and bullets.
And, of course, headlines and decks. Even those who seldom read the stories, or those who seldom read beyond the first couple of paragraphs, read the headline.
That fact should immediately establish the critical importance of headlines, and no one would deny it. Yet the reality, whether for paper or broadcast or cyberspace, is that headlines usually happen on the fly and at the end of the writing and editing process. Headline writers seldom have much creative time.
That we see so many solid or clever headlines is testament to the quick-wittedness of headline writers in general. Still, headlines are accidents waiting to happen on the way to creating something eye-catching, interesting, accurate in both form and content, possibly clever in metaphor and meaning. And that’s not even to mention something that fits.
Given the speed with which most headlines are written, the wonder is not that so many heads are lackluster or inaccurate, but that so many are brilliant. Here’s a handful of engaging, intelligent and imaginative newspaper headlines, in this case written at The Dallas Morning News:
• A headline on an article about celebrities who speak of themselves in the third person: “Speaking in third person lacks I contact.”
• From a column on growing old: “From here to infirmity.”
• An article on how the science of acoustics is affecting architecture: “Sound design.”
• A story about twin athletes, only one of whom qualified for the Olympics: “One twin’s good as gold/but other has mettle, too.”
• A Web site featuring a 13-pound tabby is popular: “Hundreds of mouses flock to cat’s Web page.”
• A column about scientific illiteracy: “Americans are a bunch of e-mc squares.”
• A piece on how plucking stresses a classical guitar: “Weathering the strums.”
• The parenthesis above this headline makes the reader smile:
Scientists say subliminal messages make only slight, brief impression
Here are some tips for writing headlines. Not every guideline will always apply; they don’t always apply in the good heads we saw above. But each is worth considering. Good headlines usually:
• Summarize the story or capture its essence.
• Are accurate in both form and content.
• Are clear, purposeful and compelling.
• Sell but don’t oversell the story.
• Are specific and concrete rather than vague and abstract.
• Capture the story’s mood and are appropriate in language and tone.
• Avoid parroting the lead or stealing the writer’s wordplay or punchline.
• Contain both subject and verb and use the active voice.
• Use strong, punchy nouns and verbs but shun headlinese.
• Avoid assumption and interpretation if the story’s facts do not support them.
• Use only recognizable names and abbreviations.
• Avoid unqualified statements if the story is qualified.
• Avoid unnecessary punctuation, prune prepositions, use single quotation marks.
• Are packed with information rather than padding.
• Avoid double entendres and “duh” statements.
That’s a demanding list given the short time most headline writers have to write a head, so it’s no wonder we see headlines that violate these guidelines. One of the most common, and often laughable, is the “duh” headline. A Massachusetts newspaper ran this headline: “Official: Only rain will cure drought.” A Maryland paper made this safe assertion: “Malls try to attract shoppers.” A campus newspaper didn’t go very far out on a limb with this: “Study finds sex, pregnancy link.” Nor did this Connecticut newspaper: “Alcohol ads promote drinking.” Nor this, from Oregon: “Teen-age girls often have babies fathered by men.”
This Kentucky newspaper headline suggests that, even with advice, you get what you pay for: “Free advice: Bundle up when out in the cold.” A New York newspaper declares, not surprisingly: “Dirty-air cities deadlier than clean ones.” Another New York duh: “Low wages said key to poverty.”
And, in case you were wondering, this headline from Virginia: “Tomatoes come in big, little, medium sizes.”
Not that newspapers have a monopoly on “duh” headlines. A Waco, Texas, television Web site ran this headline: “Doctor named president of American Medical Association.”
A doctor, eh? Handy. Our minds wander irresistibly to the oft-repeated lesson in the headline, “Man bites dog.”