A writer asked this question in a forum the other day, and the only respondent besides myself brave enough to tackle it was someone with little or no experience writing headlines!
"Brave" enough, but not smart enough. His answer was anything but helpful, and I felt sorry for the person who asked. So, of course, I had to throw my hat into the ring. Here's what I wrote:
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Contrary to what one "content writer/copywriter/marketer" wrote in response to your question, a solid newspaper headline doesn't hinge upon who cares about what the article says or why you should care. That's simply absurd. Writing a newspaper headline, which is what you asked about, requires seven steps. (Well, it does in my experience, at least, although others may have a different take on the subject.) The same holds for article headline writing in any medium, by the way.
- Read and understand the entire article.
- Read the lede (aka lead) more than once.
- Determine if the writer's lede is the proper one or if something else in the story is equally if not more important.
- Condense the gist of the lede into a single sentence.
- Condense that single sentence into from one to six or seven words, remembering architect Mies van der Rohe's mantra of "Less is more." For example, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, numerous newspapers carried headlines such as "War with Japan Imminent," "Japan Triggers U.S. Entry into War," or even "Japan Attack on Pearl Harbor Mobilizes U.S." But the newspapers with the highest circulations that day? Well, they had a notably different take on things. They ran the headline: "WAR!" See what I mean?
- Review your headline, sweating bullets over whether or not you've nailed the essence of the writer's story in only a few words.
- Go out and have a beer and get ready for the next headline you have to write while awaiting your managing editor's reaction.
Keep in the back of your mind the biggest bane with which a newspaper headline writer has to deal: Missing the essence of the story and misleading the reader. Doing that will come back to haunt you far more quickly and resolutely than any other headlining mistake you can make shy of a glaring typo!
Finally, writing headlines is not something that comes naturally to most writers or editors. It's a learned skill. It's an acquired talent. It's something you develop after months or even years of practice and experience. Then, when you sit down to write a newspaper headline, you'll know you're going to nail it.
But, still, you'll always have that nagging doubt …
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new eBook series on writing, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.