I. Where readers start.
The importance of headlines cannot be understated. For many editors, can seem like added burdens; the stories are what really count. Headlines are far too often written last (often quickly and under deadline pressure).
But let’s think like a reader. The reader unfolds the newspaper and sees what first? The photos, the headlines. These are the first reader entry points. Busy people (which includes all of your readers) scan the newspaper, surveying photos, headlines and cutlines to decide if they want to commit more time to reading the stories that interest them. The photos, cutlines and headlines are thus important decision-making points. In fact, they may be more important than any paragraph in a normal story. Probably more news consumers see the headlines and cutlines on Page One than read the first graph of even the lead story.
Good photography and writing good cutlines are vital ¾ but this lesson focuses on the page editor’s role in providing information the reader needs to decide whether to read on: writing good headlines. Consider this: what is the correlation of the readers’ needs for headlines -- and the importance placed on them by editors in terms of attitude and time allotted toward the task. Editors should dedicate plenty of time to this important task.
Headlines must be accurate: in fact, in implication, in spelling, in grammar. When readers see errors, they assume a similar rate of error will continue. They must decide whether it is worth their time to read a story that may start with a 20 percent error rate in the headline (e.g., one error in five words).
II. Four imperatives for writing headlines:
· must be correct (in fact and implication).
must connect to ordinary readers (be easily understood).
must attract attention (using interesting, active words).
must set (or match) tone of the article.
Headline warning: Never allow cute, creative headlines to blind you to the need for accuracy. Be alert to headlines that have unintended meanings.
Current trend in headline writing. Use hammer headlines: 1-3 words without a verb, often using a double-meaning or subtlety. The subhead then explains the news accurately
· Be quick, but don’t hurry. Don’t allow the goal of “pushing pages” before deadline to short-circuit the need to write accurate, clear, tasteful headlines. Remember: readers start here.
(Ask these questions of each headline):
1. Is it in good taste? Anything offensive in any way? Can anything be taken a wrong way?
2. Does it attract the reader’s attention? How can it be improved without sacrificing accuracy?
3. Does it communicate clearly, quickly? Any confusion? Any odd words, double meanings?
4. Is it accurate, true? Proper words used? Is the thrust of subject-verb true?
5. A single “NO” above is a veto. One “No” vote represents thousands of readers. Start over: rethink the headline from the beginning.
IV The One-Last-Look Step.
Each version of each headline must pass the TACT Test -- one last time. Don’t forget this step. Don’t rush through or bypass the TACT Test. The last or latest version must be examined as if it were the first version.
Errors in headlines do not often occur because the writer doesn’t care. Many have occurred on headlines that got plenty of attention, but the One-Last-Look Step was skipped. It may have been a difficult head to write -- and all agree the last one solves a key problem. This may be the time when no one stops to reexamine it one last time for a newly created problem (e.g., a typo/misspelled word, a double meaning, a word that can be misunderstood by the ordinary reader). Always pause a minute to conduct the One-Last-Look Step.
Beware when everyone falls in love with the latest version of a headline. Here’s an example of a short-circuited headline writing process: a story about Mideast violence in the fall of 2000. The story reported that Palestinian outbursts often occurred on Fridays after Sabbath noon prayers. Here’s the news headline:
Mideast violence flairs
after Sabbath prayers
The problem: The writer of the headline too quickly became infatuated with the rhyme and didn’t double-check to make sure it was accurate. The writer forgot the One-Last-Look Step. The word flairs is the wrong word; the correct word: flares. Fortunately, this was caught and corrected by another editor whore-examined the headline carefully with a healthy, skeptical approach ¾ before it was published.
VI. Choosing headline verbs.
· Use active, short, action verbs.
· A note about synonyms. Are there any? There may be some ¾ but most words carry distinct connotations. Get the right word.
Heads without verbs
· Use creative, attractive hammers of one to three words.
Shun headline jargon whenever possible:
· Stenholm eyes new legislation.
(Borrowed, adapted and condensed from a number of sources.)
· Make the headline easy to read. The key purpose of the head: to communicate.
Dr. Merlin R. Mann
Associate Professor of Journalism
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication
Abilene Christian University
301 Don H. Morris Center
ACU Station, Box 27892
Abilene, TX 79699-7892