Writing Winning Headlines

What makes effective headlines?  Deborah Douglas, one of the journalist leaders of our Public Voices Fellowship at UT-Austin, shared her thoughts, in a recent missive to her fellows.

1338301e314ea8b61026d681368344ee_400x400Should you, the writer, supply a headline with your piece? Is it reasonable to expect media outlets to honor your well-crafted headline just as they do with your piece? What’s at stake when we write our own headlines?

The truth is headlines written by writers, both freelance and staff, are just suggestions. However, arresting headlines that make editors do a double-take have a greater chance of (a) getting editors to open your email pitch; (b) showing editors/producers up front you know just what it takes to connect with their audience; (c) actually being printed with the rest of your wonderful words.

Headlines are critical to reflecting the personality and tone of a publication. We’ve talked about adjusting our individual writing tones according to particular publications, well, headlines are the same way. I’ve noticed recently that Slate likes to throw down the gauntlet in many of its headlines: “There’s Only One Way to Defeat ISIS.” Or “Apply to Law School Now.” Really? Now?

upworthylogoclearThose presented by Upworthy are effective at projecting the emotional tone they seek in connecting with their audience. Consider: “Like, OMG. Let’s Go To Africa And Save People!’ Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Be That Person.” Or “I Thought We Banned Cocaine For Health Reasons. Nope. Not Even Close.” I don’t know about you, but I’d want to read those stories.

Lastly, let’s consider “Fleeced: A Look at the Terrible Life of Migrant Workers Everywhere,” the header for fellow Sienna Craig’s piece on Nepalese migrant workers. Pacific Standard Editor Nicholas Jackson used the word “terrible” to infuse the anxiety and anguish so aptly described by Sienna in her op-ed. I see quite a few “terrible” headlines these days, and they always make me want to find out why.

For tips on ‘How to Write an Upworthy Headline’, click here.


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