7 tips for better headlines and 10 hilariously bad heads

Reading time: About 3 minutes

What’s even more important than what you’re writing right now? Why, the headline you put on top of it, of course. Here are some tips on how to write better headlines.

I’ve written before about how to produce good headlines. But as the year’s end approaches and we nudge closer to the time for resolutions, I’d like to encourage all of you to concentrate more on your headlines than on your regular writing.

A better headline is more than just icing on the cake — it’s the fundamental tool for getting people to look at your words. Get the headline wrong, and your audience will likely walk away without reading a word you’ve written. Sobering thought, I know.

Here’s a quick guide to writing better headlines:

1) Use verbs. This means you should never write a head saying something like “New Product,” Instead, you should go the extra mile: “XYZ company launches new product.” Using a single action word — launches — takes the head from unspeakably vague and dull to at least moderately interesting and informative.

2) Make the headline specific. Thus, “XYZ company launches new product,” could be replaced by “XYZ company launches digital camera,” so the reader knows exactly what you’re writing about. Sure, you’ll lose the readers who don’t want digital cameras, but what’s bad about that? They’re not interested anyway.

3) Consider using the imperative. That’s when you issue an order such as: “Discover how you can write your own book.” Something about the imperative really makes readers snap to attention.

4) Weigh the benefits of the “How To” hook. For example, could you pass up on a story headlined: “How to never be late again”?

5) Ask a crafty question. A headline such as, “Are you throwing your best writing in the garbage?” would certainly get my attention.

6 )Pique your readers’ curiosity. “Discover the Lady Gaga secret to writing,” is just off-beat enough to make me want to read more.

7) Tantalize with a number: “7 tips for better headlines” is a good example of this technique.

Just as the tragedy mask is almost always shown with the one for comedy and salt generally accompanies pepper, I thought I’d also take this chance to share some funny-in-a-bad-way headlines sent to me by Power Writing reader David Fieldman.

If nothing else they also illustrate the 8th rule of headline writing — ensure your headlines actually make sense!

1 Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter: Amazing what corpses can accomplish, isn’t it?

2 Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says: Really? D’ya think?

3 Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers: Ah, c’mon police. Don’t you know you should be setting a better example, even for lawbreakers?

4 Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant: Obviously, a new courtroom strategy. I can hardly wait to hear if it works.

5 If Strike Isn’t Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile: No kidding!

6 Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures: Kind of the same way that heat waves are linked to hotter temperatures, eh?

7 Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges: I’ve heard of duct tape being used to hold together student bunk beds, but never red tape for supporting bridges!

8 Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft: I guess budget cutbacks have led to more beans in the diet.

9 Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half: A little harsh, don’t you think? Unless, of course, you’re trying to retrain them as magicians.

10 Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead: The poor deceased never seem to get adequate rest in bad headline-land.