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DigitalJournal.com Tip #19: The craft of writing headlines

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By David Silverberg
Posted Jan 13, 2010 in Internet
It's hard enough to compile facts and quotes and stats into a well-organized article, but to write the concise and eye-catching headline? Let's just say it's a skill that doesn't come easily to some writers.
That's not to say headline-writing can't be honed. Below are several tips on how to write headilnes that not only sum up the article's thesis but also reel in attention:
• Let readers know what is happening in an article. Be clear and concise. A good headline would be: Shark kills tourist off Cape Town, beaches closed
A bad headline would be: Sea predators hunger for human flesh. What does that tell you?
• A good headline will try to answer some of the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. It might even answer how something occurred.
• Don't try to be too cute in headlines. That tactic might work in magazine writing, but with a hard-news site like Digitaljournal.com, readers want to know the story's subject right away through headlines. Wordplay has its place, but don't overdo it
• If someone says something about a certain subject, and that's the crux of the article, it should be outlined in the article. So a headline might read:
Cheney: Obama avoiding the words 'war on terror'
With that headline, we understand who spoke about Obama; it was Cheney, not the author.
• Avoid using many punctuation marks and symbols. A headline full of exclamation marks and dashes and brackets will look amateurish. Use commas and question marks but that's about it
• Don't assume people know your community. You need to highlight where something occurred, so make sure the reader is updated on the location of the story. Readers might not know where Hamilton, Ontario is, for example, so it might be best to write Ontario in the headline
• Studies and polls are usually highlighted in the headline, looking like this - CBS Poll: Obama approval rating sitting at 46 per cent
• The same rules applies to sports articles. Don't assume people know who the Hornets are, who Pele is; lead the headline with words such as NBA, NFL, etc, so the head might read like this:
NFL: Charles Woodson Wins Defensive MVP
• There are several arguments on this, but headlines look cleaner when they're written with just one capital letter, in the beginning. Look at this headline, for instance:
U.S. ambassador to Iran quits job
Only Iran is capitalized, not the other words. To some, it's a matter of taste, and we've noticed many Digital Journalists tend to use title case. But it's common practice at many venerable media outlets to simply use sentence case
Got any other tips for writing headlines? Questions? Let us know in the comment section below.

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