Don’t Let a Bad Headline Embarrass You

By Sarah Knight, Copywriter

I’m not one to stay up and watch late night television, but if I happen to catch The Tonight Show, I love when Jay Leno does his bit on bad—but very funny—headlines.  As a writer, I realize it’s sometimes difficult to craft an effective, highly compelling headline, but what I don’t understand is how blatantly bad or stupidly obvious headlines make it into newspapers. Were the copyeditors sleeping on the job that day?

Headlines that make you laugh, and the authors cry:

  • Big Ugly Woman Wins Beauty Pageant (Newspaper in Big Ugly, WV)
  • Chef Throws His Heart Into Helping Feed Needy (Louisville Courier Journal)
  • Body Search Reveals $4,000 in Crack (Jackson Citizen-Patriot)
  • Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors (Providence Journal)
  • Jerk Injures Neck, Wins Award (Buffalo News)
  • Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years (Post News)
  • Lack of brains hinders research (The Columbus Dispatch)
  • Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half (Valley News)

Headlines that make you say “No Duh!”:

  • Alcohol Ads Promote Drinking (The Hartford Courant)
  • Fish Lurk in Streams (Democrat & Chronicle)
  • Plot to Kill Officer had Vicious Side (The Chicago Tribune)
  • Putting Mattress on Floor Prevents Fall From Bed (the Associated Press)
  • Teenage Girls Often Have Babies Fathered by Men (The Sunday Oregonian)

Writing the perfect headline is essentially an art form because you need to strategically and succinctly piece together words that are going to entice people to read your article.

Here are some headline tips to help you avoid copy blunders. After all, no one wants to be called out on Leno for writing a bad headline.

Frame Your Copy Correctly

Sometimes the right words for a headline are there; they just aren’t in the right position. Take “Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years,” for example; the writer would have been better off using “For Second Time in 10 Years, Killer Sentenced to Die.”

Stay Short and on Point

Busy people don’t want to waste their valuable time trying to figure out what you’re trying to say. If your headline is too much to digest, readers will typically bypass your article, assuming the rest of your copy will be just as long-winded. And don’t forget you’re competing with the thousands of other messages people receive daily—so keep your content short and sweet.

Don’t Confuse or Intimidate Your Readers

Keep corporate jargon and highly complex text out of your headline. Most newspaper reporters write their articles at the seventh or eighth grade level, so don’t go overboard trying to impress people with your fancy talk. Simple is better.

Edit and Proof

Start by editing and proofing your own work. Sometimes reading your headline out loud helps. Then, you MUST have others in your office proof your work. It’s amazing how many errors slip by when you are proofing your own work. You are too close to the content and your mind will trick you into thinking an “a” is where it should be, when it is actually missing.

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