Headline writing for the web

May 21, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: editing, headlines.

Some of the most important words a journalist will write for the web are the headline. A headline has always been very important for print media. It is vitally important for the web. Because headlines appear in lists as links rather than with the body of the story, they are the reader’s first introduction to a story. If they do not sell the reader immediately, the reader is unlikely to click on the link to go to the story.

Headlines must contain the key words that will convey the subject of the story and what the story is about (two different things – the first general and the second specific).

The first rule of headline writing is that the words accurately represent what is in the story. Accuracy above all else.

Headlines are abstracted sentences — five to 10 words at most — that convey a complete thought. That is, they must contain a subject and a verb; better yet, a subject, verb and object.

Finally, and very importantly, a good, straightforward is what search engines such as Google like. Headlines are the key to search engine optimization (SEO), which helps to draw traffic to a web site.


The goal: coherent information

Headline writers need to keep this question in their minds as they begin and end the process of writing the head:

If a reader were reading only your five to 10 words, would he or she know what the article is about?

The answer to that question too often is no. How many headlines have you read that left you clueless. They may contain a word or two that you understand or designate a subject that you want to read about, they give you no real information.



With that question in mind, here are some guidelines.

  • Headlines should be based on the main idea of the story. That idea should be found in the lead or introduction of the story. 
  • If facts are not in the story, do not use them in a headline. 
  • Avoid repetition.Don’t repeat key words in the same headline; don’t repeat the exact wording of the story in the headline. 
  • Avoid ambiguity, insinuations and double meanings. 
  • If a story qualifies a statement, the headline should also. Headline writers should understand a story completely before they write its headline. Otherwise, headlines such as the one below can occur.Council to cut taxes at tonight’s meeting

    The City Council will vote on a proposal to cut property taxes by as much as 10 percent for some residents at tonight’s meeting.

    The proposal, introduced two weeks ago by council member Paul Dill and backed by Mayor Pamela Frank, would offer incentives for property owners who use their property to create jobs for area residents. . .


  • Use present tense verbsfor headlines that refer to past or present events. 
  • For the future tense, use the infinitive form of the verb (such as “to go,” “to run,” etc.) rather than the verb “will.” 
  • “To be” verbs, such as “is,” “are,” “was” and “were,” should be omitted. 
  • Alliteration, if used, should be deliberate and should not go against the general tone of the story. 
  • Do not use articles— “a,” “an” and “the.” These take up space that could be put to better use in informing the reader. In the examples below, the second headline gives readers more information than the first.New police patrols help make the streets safer

    New patrols help make westside streets safer


  • Do not use the conjunction “and.” It also uses space unnecessarily. Use a comma instead.Mayor and council meet on budget for next year

    Mayor, council agree to cuts on new budget

  • Avoid using unclear or little-known names, phrases and abbreviations in headlines. 
  • Use punctuation sparingly. 
  • No headline may start with a verb. 
  • Headlines should be complete sentences or should imply complete sentences. When a linking verb is used, it can be implied rather than spelled out. 
  • Avoid headlinese — that is, words such as hit, flay, rap, hike, nix, nab, slate, etc. Use words for their precise meaning. 
  • Do not use pronouns alone and unidentified. 
  • Be accurate and specific.


The original question

Keep reminding yourself of the original question we posed earlier:

If a reader were reading only your five to 10 words, would he or she know what the article is about?

Headline writing is not easy if it is done well. Some people have more facility with it than others, but anyone who is determined to be a journalist can lean to write a good headline.


Shawn Smith, Headline writing: How web and print headlines differ, NewMediaBytes.com

JPROF’s editing for the web exercise and completed example

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