Five headline writing rules that we can learn from newspapers

Newspaper sub-editors thrive on coming up with the best headlines, but today’s publishers have to think harder than ever about how to catch people’s attention

If you are a sub-editor at Britain’s best-selling newspaper the Sun then headline writing is your currency.

“It’s competitive and collaborative at the same time,” says Simon Carroll, who relished his 14 years at a paper that’s known for its intimate understanding of its mass-market audience and its tightly-written stories. “You can say you are stuck and get some help, but secretly you want to get the best headline before anyone else weighs in.”

The quest for the best headline is more important in today’s world than ever as multiple publishers – from newspapers to corporations – fight for eyes on their stories online. But while writing for Google and its algorithms requires a grasp of search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques, the golden rules of attracting attention to an article remain the same. So what can we learn from newspaper best practice that has served its purpose for centuries?

If we start with the Sun then most of its headlines are very straight descriptions of the story in brutally short language. It’s an art famously demonstrated by the New York Post with its dark but bang on point headline:

Headless body in topless bar

…which referred to the gruesome story of a decapitation in a strip bar in the city in 1983 and was actually changed in later editions.

Headless bodies apart, that approach is perfect for the digital world where a direct, clear, relevant headline will help a story cut through. But the Sun is best known for its puns with resonant cultural references. Carroll remembers when a headline writer blended a story about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea’s former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il with a popular British TV show of the time that was looking for singers for a new production of The Sound of Music. The headline:

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

Unfortunately, puns don’t work well online because they don’t mean anything to an international audience. So this potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding means they are out – which not all will mourn. Keith Waterhouse, the guru of British editorial style, was particularly critical of the over-use of puns. He found that any story about a cat that escaped death was lazily headlined:

Purrfect ending

While he cringed at a Daily Star headline about an angler chased by wasps:

Water bad idea

And condemned the inappropriateness of the Daily Mirror’s:

Blow me!

… for a story about a hurricane in Jamaica that killed many people.

But, aside from holding off the puns, here are some simple rules of thumb from seasoned newspaper journalists that will help you shape your headlines – and avoid any potential pitfalls.

1 Be accurate

The first rule is to be credible.

Your headline needs to not only tell people what the story is about but also be accurate and honest. Anyone duped into reading a story that doesn’t live up to its headline is unlikely to click on your content again.

These rules of accurate, fair and inform are the mainstays of experienced headline writer and sub-editor Philippa Soden, who spent 19 years with the Telegraph and now works as a freelance for newspapers including the Times and Financial Times.

“The headline has to reflect the story,” explains Soden. “Sometimes people lose sight of that, maybe because they are trying to be a bit too clever.

“Your job is to be accurate and to inform your reader of what you are leading them into. You can’t mislead your reader or they will lose their trust in you.”

So however tempting it is to follow the click-bait style favoured by hot new websites in the manner of:

21 celebrities you didn’t know were gay

… think credibility first as you are planning to be around longer than the latest trend.

2 Know your audience

With our ethics sorted, what should we think of next?

There’s one thing you will know better than anyone else and that’s your audience. You know what their interests are and you know what stories are likely to appeal to them. That gives you a feeling for what kind of headline is likely to make them read on. This also explains why the same story will have different headlines in different publications – the Telegraph and the Sun, for example:

American beats British army captain in becoming first person to cross Antarctic unaided
The Telegraph, 27 December, 2018

Who is Colin O’Brady? US explorer who completed the first solo Antarctica trip
The Sun, 27 December, 2018

The Telegraph headline suggests that it thinks its readers will already have an interest in the “race” to cross the Antarctic unaided and that they would be interested in the fact that the British contender was an army captain. Meanwhile the Sun headline is making a simple appeal for attention to the story by drawing on the sheer physical challenge involved and then spelling out the story to its readers (although not entirely accurately).

“Every word has to be written with your audience in mind,” explains Carroll. “You are thinking: ‘Do they care enough about this? Am I saying it in a way that can help them care or help them understand what I’m saying?’”

These two headlines also demonstrate a related point of not mentioning information your audience won’t know – the Telegraph covers this off by leaving out the names of the Antarctic adventurers, while the Sun spells them out. When the Financial Times prepared UK news pages for its international editions distributed outside the UK, it was assumed that the only names allowed in headlines were Thatcher and Churchill. Even the Chancellor would only be referred to as the UK Finance Minister, never by name.

3 Make it snappy

A headline is trying to make ideas stick in the smallest number of words, while making readers understand what you are talking about and want to read more.

“I think of it as trying to distil information,” says Soden. “What would I say to someone in six or seven words to give them an idea of the story? It’s as basic as that.”

The same is true for companies publishing stories on their websites. “You want to get the idea into people’s brains with as little resistance and in as short a time as possible,” adds Carroll, who has created and marketed a game called Headline Charades based on classic newspaper headlines. “I can remember lots of headlines but I would struggle to remember the substance of the story. So headlines stick and that’s the way our brains work.”

4 Sweat it

Headlines aren’t just lessons in economy, of course – making sure those words are the right ones is critically important. Sub-editing is a craft, and subs’ love of language means they use active action verbs – beat, rather than was beaten by, for example – exciting adjectives and engaging words to bring the story to life. They excel, too, at understanding the nuances between words with very similar meanings – knowing why ‘almost’ is more positive than ‘nearly’, for instance.

Once you’ve written a headline, your first thought should be whether you can improve it. As with any writing, you have to edit and re-edit to make sure the words are working as hard as they can.

“It’s about being incredibly economical and making sure every single word earns its place in the headline,” says Carroll. “Even with a short headline you want to ask if you can substitute a word that would make it clearer or resonate more. Can you insert one extra fact?”

And it’s here that teamwork is a massive help. Newspapers used to make sure that three people worked on a headline – the downtable sub, the revise sub and the desk head – and it was inevitable it would get changed as it passed up the chain. It’s always easier to improve someone else’s headline than write something from scratch.

“My chief sub-editor was a genius and he would look at the story and write something better in an instant,” laughs Carroll. “You can always improve what you do.”

“Even now – after 19 years in the job – I still look to see if my headline gets changed on its way to being published,” adds Soden.

Most digital publishers today won’t have the luxury of multiple eyes on a story, but it’s worth sense checking it with someone if you can.

Meanwhile other publishers go further still by A/B testing headlines to see which iteration pulls in more readers online.

5 Get seen

Getting your headline seen online is a continually evolving art requiring a detailed understanding of the workings of search engines. But Louise Merry, who was a print journalist before becoming commercial SEO manager for the Telegraph Media Group, has several insights into how to get a headline to the top of informational searches – ie where people are looking for background information.

“My definition of the best headline for an informational, mid-level piece of content starts with a trigger question – what, where, when, why, how, if – as that is how people naturally ask their questions and that is increasing in relevance with the rise of voice search,” she says. “The keyword that sums up the core interest should usually follow as close as possible to that trigger question.”

This leads to the kind of “informational, long-tail, question-led” headlines that are common online today.

If we use the example of “retail banking”, there are questions people will already have asked about this online. If you put “retail banking” in Google and hit enter it gives you a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) with 10 results that help you understand what people are interested in around that core interest, such what retail banking’s functions are, or the differences between the various types.

If you return to the search bar and put your cursor just after the “g” of “retail banking” it brings up an autosuggest list that shows you related searches, such as its functions, features or objectives.

Typing question words such as “what” or “how” before your search term, leaving a space, also brings up commonly-asked queries around this subject, which can help you frame the headline for your own article.

“These are just the first steps,” explains Merry. “There are many more digital tools that can help such as Google Ads Keyword Planner and There’s also a feature on the Google SERP called People Also Ask, which is a little box with a drop-down list of three or four questions that people also ask when they search for that core term. If you click on them they give an explanation and a link to another page.”

But even if you’ve cracked the algorithms, it will take more than a winning headline to get your article seen.

“Google only surfaces things by level of quality, trust and authority,” adds Merry. “So each page gets a score for those factors and this is formed by many things including the overall state of your website which needs to be authoritative, technically strong and have good engagement. So the collective score attached to a single web page on a website is very much influenced by the entire quality picture as a whole.”

Which sounds like there might just be room for a few more Google-defying newspaper headline treats. Which search engine would deny the power of:

Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious

… written in the Sun in 2000 when the Scottish football team Celtic suffered an embarrassing cup defeat to lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistle, dubbed a “career-making headline” by Carroll. Or the headline in the Ulster Gazette in 2013 on a story about a government consultation exercise on railway services that paid homage to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

Over £100m! Is this the rail price? Is this just fantasy? Caught up in land buys, No escape from bureaucracy!

How to think of a headline: tips from the subs

Philippa Soden

  • Think how you would tell someone what the story is about – in six or seven words – and use that as the basis of your headline.
  • If it is a longer piece, jot down key words as you read through so you have the essence of the story at hand for writing the headline and sub-heading.
  • Read your headline over several times to make sure it flows.
  • Reduce the font size on the screen or zoom out to check how it looks – take a digital step back.
  • If you can’t think of a headline take a break from your desk and it will probably come to you.

Simon Carroll

  • Write a list of words to help trigger a train of thought.
  • Put keywords in Google and get ideas from what comes up.
  • Try saying ideas out loud and see what happens.
  • At the Sun we would think of songs and film titles to give cultural resonance to a headline, or build it around a quote – but that is harder with online content.