Click me: Writing compelling headlines

August 12, 2014 01:30

By Lynn Walsh, RTDNA Contributor

It’s probably one of the last things you write, but headlines are and always have been an important part of the writing process.

Writing funny and ironic headlines were all the rage for reporters in the old days (think 1990s, pre-web explosion). Headlines would be written as a play on words with the focus being more on being creative and witty than telling the reader what the story was about.

But the internet and Google have changed that. Think about how you use the internet and search online.

You are solution hunting; going to a place to get something done. You are looking for coverage that is comprehensive but specific. And most of us are scanners. It is estimated we read, on average, about 25 percent of the words on a website. We are looking for brevity and so are our readers.

So with search engines, we need to be thinking about optimizing our stories, especially our headlines for the search engines. You have to think, SEO (search engine optimization) writing or “Google” writing.

Give it to the reader straight. Be descriptive and not cute and clever; with the web, it’s not a tease.

The web is different:
  • Limited by the number of characters you can use in a headline
  • Hard to add context. In a newspaper you can have a creative headline that is a play on words and reader may know exactly what the photo is based on the accompanying photo. With the web, that is a lot less likely to happen.
  • Trying to create mass appeal.
  • Too creative of headlines don’t work.

If someone is looking for a story about a famous person who has died; if you do not have that person's name in the headline, people will most likely not find your story from your headline but will get the information elsewhere in another story.

Luckily people have been paying close attention to what gets readers to click on stories. And while not every headline lends itself to certain tricks or tips, there are some proven ways to write better headlines for the web.

When writing headlines use:
  • Numbers. The bigger or more obscure the better. The best advice is to use actually numerals instead of writing out the word. Another suggestion is to lead with the number to grab the readers attention.
  • Interesting adjectives. Some suggestions include “smart,” “surprising,” “critical,” “huge” and “hacks.”
  • Questions. Who, What, Where, Why, How are all great.
  • Most interesting words or phrase near the beginning.
  • Descriptive language. Think about how you would search for this story online and be sure to include those words in the headline.
  • Solutions. People enjoy reading articles that can solve their problems or make their life easier. For news, think about why someone would want to read the story and after reading it what they might learn. Try to tell them what they might learn in the headline.
The Formula For a Perfect Headline
Courtesy of: Quick Sprout

As with a lot of things in life, some tried and true practices of headline writing still stay true, whether you are writing for the web or the more traditional mediums.

Always remember to:
  • Be accurate.
  • Try to draw the reader in to read the story.
  • Not repeat the lede.

Do you have some headline writing secrets? Let us know in the comments below.

Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist currently producing stories for the E.W. Scripps National Digital Desk. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh,on Tumblr, or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh (at)


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