How to write headlines?
An easy way to remember the functions of the headline is through the acronym HEADS:
H – Heralds the day’s news; tells what is of importance.
E – Entices the reader with essential or interesting facts.
A – Advertises the most important story by size or placement on the page (the most important stories are displayed at the top of the page).
D – Dresses up a page with typography; helps male design attractive.
S – Summarises the story with a “super” lead; tells what the story is about.
You have just delivered a story to your associate editor that is arguably the best you have ever written.
However, the story might vanish into obscurity on any newspaper page if the accompanying headline does not entice or inform the reader.
Well-written headlines grab the reader’s attention, convey clear, concise thoughts, and dress up the publication. Poorly written headlines can mislead, confuse, and even embarrass the newspaper staff. Headlines must be free of libellous statements and must not contain violations of security, accuracy, policy, and propriety.
A reader often decides whether to read a story based on what the headline says. A headline tempts the reader to dig into the story. To do this, you, as a headline writer, must have a sense of what will attract the reader. You must have a broad vocabulary and enough versatility to say the same thing several ways to make sure the headline will fit the space allotted for it on the page.
You can display headlines in several ways. For style variation, your headlines can beset in all-caps, caps and lowercase or downstyle. These methods are covered in the following text.
The all-capital letter headline style is almost extinct. All-caps heads, while they are easier to write than others, are the most difficult to read To test this premise, read the following paragraph:
AS THIS PARAGRAPH DEMONSTRATES, THE ALL-CAPITAL SETTING IS NEITHER EFFICIENT FOR THE READER, NOR PLEASING TO THE EYE. WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST USED TO HAVE KEY GRAPHS IN HIS EDITORIALS SET ALL-CAPS. INSTEAD OF MAKING THE POINT EMPHATICALLY, AS HE INTENDED, SUCH SETTING ACTUALLY CUT DOWN THE READERSHIP AND ITS IMPACT.
Even the most patient, attentive and skilled reader will be blinded by the onslaught of all those capital letters. By the way, did you spot the typo?
CAPS AND LOWERCASE HEADS
A widely used headline style is the uppercase and lowercase head In this headline style, all words, other than articles, conjunctions, and prepositions of fewer than four (and sometimes five) letters, are set with the first letter in caps and the others in lowercase.
The down-style head usage has increased in popularity in recent years. In down-style heads, the first letter of the first word – and the first letter of any proper noun – is set as a cap, and all other letters are lowercase. Down-style is presented in the way persons are taught to read and write. The style is visually attractive and enhances the readability of the line. By design, it lacks the numerous capital letters in a headline, which serve as “eye stoppers”.
|Vajpayee says no talks with Pak until terror export stops|
The banner head is set the frill-page width at the top of a news page to draw attention to the lead story or that particular page. If you run a banner head above the flag or nameplate, it is called a skyline. A streamer applies to the widest and biggest multi-column head on a page, regardless of whether it is the full width.
Vajpayee says Pak should stop terror export
The crossline head is very similar to a banner headline. Although it does not always span the full width of the page, it does cover all the columns of the story to which it pertains.
FLUSH LEFT HEAD
No talks till
Pak stops terror
export : Vajpayee
The flush left head is a two- or three-line head with each line set flush left. The lines do not have to be equal in width or set full. The white space at the right is considered enhancing, because it allows “air” into the otherwise stuffy column spaces. Flush left is the most commonly used head today.
India’s warning to Pakistan
|The side head is a headline form that runs alongside a story. It is normally three or four lines and looks best when set flush right. A side head is usually placed slightly above the centre of the story.|
Musharaff plays the old tune again
Vajpayee says no talks with Pak until terror export stops
The kicker opens the area on a page where the headline is located. It can be used to introduce a feature article with a line above the main head
The following are some basic rules for you to follow when writing kickers:
- Extract kicker information from the bridge or the body of the story.
- Do not repeat words in the kicker and main head. Interpretation of the main head should not depend on information in the kicker.
- Make the kicker 1/2 the point size of the main head. For example, a 36-point main head will have an 18-point kicker.
- Set the kicker 1/3 to 1/2 the width of the main head. For example, a three-column main head requires a one-column to 1 1/2-column kicker.
- Alternate type postures to give the head the proper emphasis. For instance, a Roman style main head requires an italic kicker and vice versa.
- Indent the main head two counts under the kicker. to add white space.
- Always underline the kicker.
There are countless variations of headline styles, all of which are viewed in terms of their visual impact when used with basic headline styles. Some of these variants are explained in the following text.
The standing head is essentially a label used for regular or recurring content, such as sports and film review columns. It does not change from issue to issue.
The jump head is designed to help the reader find a portion of a story continued from another page. The jump head uses one or two key words from the headline that introduced the story. It is set flush left followed by the words “Continued from Page ##,” usually set in boldface body type (it also can be set in italic).
HEADLINE WRITING SKILLS
Headline writing requires skill and concentration. Your headline must give the essence of the story. While explaining the story accurately, your headline also must fit into a limited space.
Some copy editors approach headline writing by looking for a key word or two that expresses the high point of the story. Then they add other words until they have a headline. Other copy editors begin by forming a sentence that contains the essential elements of the story. Then they edit out excess words (adverbs, adjectives, articles, and so forth) and minor details until all that is left is a well-tailored headline that tells the story essentials.
Headlines are written in telegraphic English, a term coined because they closely resemble the wording found in most telegrams. While the consideration in telegrams is mostly monetary, the economical consideration of headlines is space. Therefore, headlines usually contain as the “bare bones” of language – a subject and verb. Other strong uses of telegraphic English might include subject-predicate or subject-verb-object constructions.
A straight news headline is written for a straight news story and a feature headline for a feature story. If the story is a colourful account of some event or trip, the headline should be colourful. If the story is a romantic or dramatic account of an event, the headline should follow form. If it is a human-interest story with an element of pathos, the headline should not be humorous. If the story is humorous, the headline should not be pathetic.
USE OF VERBS
The key to good headline writing is the use, whenever possible, of strong action verbs. Headline writers use verbs in what is sometimes called the ‘historical present’ tense – meaning they use the present tense verb to describe action that has already happened. Primarily, this tense is used to convey a sense of immediacy, in the same way many people normally speak in the present tense to describe exciting experiences to friends. Present tense verbs contain fewer letters than do their past tense forms.
Verbs may be omitted when implied. For example, the verb “appears” is implied in the following headline:
Sunil in final list
However, do not overuse this approach. Action verbs are still best for capturing a reader’s attention. The verbs are and is are frequently understood. It is not necessary to use them except for clarity. The infinitive “to be” is also awkward in headlines and you should avoid using it. Note the following examples:
Poor: New pay raise is approved
Better: New pay raise approved
Do not begin a headline with a verb that might convey the imperative mood (implying a command). Note the examples that follow:
Poor: Reject new pay hike for armed forces
Good: Armed forces pay hike rejected by Congress
Better: Congress rejects new pay hike for armed forces
To give the reader a better sense of immediacy, the verb should be in the first line of a headline whenever possible. When you can avoid it, do not place the verb in the bottom line of a three-line head.
Omit all articles (a, an, the) and other unnecessary words, where possible. Note the following example:
Poor: Today’s submariners are “lucky” says veteran of the USS Grant
Better: Today’s submariners “lucky” says USS Grant veteran
Use the active voice in preference to the passive voice whenever possible. Note the following examples:
Poor: More pilots being sought for T-45 test
Better: Navy seeks more pilots for T-45 test
Poor: Navy flight training bolstered by new T-45
Better: New T-45s bolster Navy flight training
Make each deck (not necessarily each line) a complete construction. Write the headline so it will stand alone and make sense, especially when you use it as the main deck. Consider the following example:
Poor: Decade of off-duty study earns degree at National Law University
Better: Police chief earns law degree after decade of off-duty study
Because headlines are restricted to a small space, copy editors generally limit headlines to one specific idea expressed forcefully, rather than several ideas expressed vaguely. If space permits, editors sometimes connect two independent thoughts by a semicolon in a headline – or add another section to the headline (a second deck) – to include additional important aspects of the story.
If a story involves a plane crash that kills one crew member, injure the pilot and disrupts a training exercise, you should limit the main deck to the death. Subordinate headlines, or the story, should cover the other news.
As with all forms of newswriting, the use of specifics is better than generalities. Note the following headline:
Auto crash proves fatal
This headline does not contain nearly as much information as the headline that follows:
2 die as car hits tree
Another custom most headline writers observe is phrasing headlines in a positive, rather than in a negative manner. This is based on the principle that a newspaper is supposed to tell readers what did happen, not what did not happen.
When writing about a family that escapes injury when their car overturns and bums on a highway, a novice headline writer would probably write the following:
No one hurt in car fire
Given the same story, a good headline writer composes the following headline:
Family escapes flaming death
Headlines on stories dealing with opinion should show the source of that opinion. If a story is attributed to a second hand source, this should be reflected in the headline. Consider the following example:
‘Courts too lenient’ claims priest
You should avoid repeating words in the same headline deck. Also, watch out for similar phraseology in adjacent heads and decks. Consider the following example:
Former Jamshedpur journalist returns to Jamshedpur as public relations officer
THE FIVE Ws
A good headline generally has the who and the what of the story in the first line, with the following lines explaining the how and why, if necessary.
People expect newspaper stories to concern events that have occurred since the previous edition was published. Therefore, the when can usually be omitted. If an event is yet to happen, however, warn the reader by the inclusion of the when through the use of the future tense or a specific day or date.
The where in a headline on a local story is generally omitted. Readers expect their newspapers to print local stories and will assume a story is local unless the dateline or headline specifies otherwise.
Use short, vigorous words. Headline writers usually have a vocabulary all their own. They learn to think in terms of short synonyms for longer expressions when writing headlines. Many copy-editing texts contain lists of short synonyms for headline use. Note the following examples: l Named for appointed or elected l Set for arrange or schedule
Win for victory, Ex for former, Job for appointment, Okay for accept, approve or adopt, Try for attempt the list goes on…
Newspaper editors generally adhere to the following style for headlines:
Use single quotation marks instead of double.
Use commas to replace the word and. Also, where natural, use commas to make pauses or breaks in headline construction.
Use semicolons to divide thoughts, where needed especially three-line heads.
Use periods only after abbreviations.
In a caps and lowercase head, start each line and every important word with capital letters.
Articles (which are rarely used) and prepositions (which do not lead off a line) are not capitalised in a caps and lowercase head.
To make sure a headline fits in its allotted space, you can use a form of measurement called a “unit count.” This system assigns each letter, number, punctuation mark and space character a specified number value. The area on a newspaper page is limited, so it is important that you use the unit count system properly.
“lift-j” UNIT COUNT SYSTEM
Headline counting systems vary from newspaper to newspaper. However, in this section, we use the standard system in the newspaper industry today – the “lift-j” unit count system. The letters that compose the name of this system act as a crutch to remind you what groups of letters receive unique values when counting the headline.
The “lift-j” unit count system is determined by the following rules:
All lowercase letters and spaces between words or characters each receive one (1) count.
EXCEPTIONS: l, i, f, t and j each receive one-half (0.5) count;
m and w each receive one and one-half (1.5) counts.
All uppercase letters and all numeric characters each receive one and one-half (1.5) counts.
EXCEPTIONS: M and W each receive two (2) counts; I and the numeral 1 each receive one (1) count. All punctuation characters each receive one-half (0.5) count.
EXCEPTIONS: Each hyphen (-) receives one (1) count; each dollar sign ($) or question mark (?) receives one and one-half (1.5) counts; each dash ( – ) receives two (2) counts.
In counting the units in a headline, you place one tick mark over each character or space that has a count of one; place two tick marks over each character that has a count of two; and place one tick mark beneath each character that has a count of one-half.
After placing the tick marks, total the whole number count values and then add any one-half count values.
TIPS FOR GOOD HEADLINES
1. Tell the story
* Make your headline say something.
* Identify the nut graph of the story. Be careful not to put a first-day head on a second-day story. Always ask yourself “What is this story really about?” You can never go wrong. But . . .
* If you are having trouble distilling what about the story is news, the story is probably failing in its focus. Consult the writer. Ask what the writer thinks the headline should say, or what is the most important point.
* Think inverted pyramid style. Get the most important element first, the least important head element last (most times, attribution will go at the end). If the lead needs attribution, chances are the headline will, too.
2. Sell the story
On a compelling story, say something to your readers. Tell them why they should be interested. Make the headline work with the graphics and art. Look at the photographs before you write the headline. Consider them with the story.
3. Match the tone of the story
If you cried reading the story, then you want a touching head. If you were laughing, write a funny head. Although you want to match the tone of the story, do not steal the exact words. Write a better headline than the lead.
4. Aim for complete thoughts
Avoid bad breaks, such as prepositions and conjunctions at the ends of lines. In extremely tight counts, bad breaks sometimes are unavoidable, but almost anything is better than a bad break at the end of the first line. Avoid breaking proper names at all costs. Do not use pronouns as a subject. They are vague.
5. Be original
Headlines that play on the hot movie title of the day may work, but probably only once. Instead, rely on your own excellent command of the English language. If you do employ word play on an idiom or common phrase, be sure the meter is the same. The headline will ring falsely otherwise.
* Avoid headlinese. Mull, eye, rap, hit, slam, vie, assail, seen and bid are headline weaklings. Alter your approach to get away from them.
* If you feel yourself using a form of get for the verb, try to force yourself to find a more descriptive, energetic verb. You will be surprised at how much information the verb can convey.
* As you read the story jot down key words that come to mind.
* If you use a pun, be honest with yourself. Will it make the reader smile, or groan?
* Avoid trite or overused expressions. Get those clichés out of your system by writing them down. Then define and delete them.
* Do not go for the obvious. For example, on storm stories, verbs like spawn, dump, blow. Look for a fresh approach.
6. Be accurate
Check the headline against the story, then check it again. Make sure it says only what you intend.
- If you are using a name from the story, put it on a save string. Do not trust yourself to type it in correctly. Similarly for numbers.
- Spellcheck AFTER you write the display type. In particular, check the proper names.