Society of Professional Journalists National President Claire Regan was well into her career before she mastered headline writing. At her “Headless Body In Topless Bar: Headline Writing 101” session, Regan revealed her best methods for writing a catchy and informative head.
The session’s name actually comes from an infamous New York Post article by journalist Vincent Musetto. The article announced the death of a decapitated man in an adult club. Despite the severe circumstances, Regan explained that the headline is a wonderful example of drawing eyes to a story while reporting the news.
“Your headline is sort of like a store window, and people are passing by,” Regan said. “If there’s something well-designed and interesting in the store window, they’ll stop, and they’ll find out more about it.”
Regan warns some headlines can be too clever. A too-cryptic headline can leave readers confused and uninterested. To help attendees create a fun yet significant headline, Regan recommended always being aware of your audience and the voice of your publication.
Headlines can also be too on the nose by over explaining or too straightforward. Regan suggested that a good headline should always be accurate, understandable, conversational, be in active voice, and include an interesting detail.
Wanting to teach others how to write headlines, Joe Early came to Regan’s session for guidance. As the editor-in-chief of the Prairie News, West Texas A&M University’s student newspaper, Early knows how to write a hed. But, she wants to help her staff solidify their headline writing.
“My favorite was the ‘tell me something I don’t know’ headline that [Regan] was pointing out,” Early said. “I feel like everybody is so guilty of it. If you put that in the headline, then not only is that kind of boring, I don’t think a lot of people would read it. I’m from Amarillo if you say, ‘Amarillo is windy,’ I’d just look at it and be like, ‘Yea, it is every day,’ and not care about it, so I felt that that was a very useful tip.”
Throughout the panel, Regan gave examples from the many stories she has written for the Staten Island Advance, where she’s worked for over 30 years. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Regan used a call-to-action headline to help Staten Island citizens and catch the attention of public figures.
“We learned that President Obama, at the time, was planning to visit New York City to see the devastation from Hurricane Sandy,” Regan said. “So I designed this front page, and we’re talking to the president in the headline, ‘Mr. President, you must see this. You must come here.’ So, you can make a case with a headline, and you can even talk to somebody.”
Regan suggested journalists can use other forms of headlines, including one-word headlines or quotes. She explained that knowing when to use these headlines is essential, mainly depending on whether the publication is print or digital due to word count and SEO.
As a senior at Utah State University and an editor for her school newspaper, Caitlin Keith said one of her biggest difficulties is writing headlines. Keith attended the panel in hopes of strengthening how she introduces her stories.
“I often generalize in my headlines,” Keith said. “I’m just like, ‘this happened,’ or ‘resources for homeless people, cash value’ and things like that. I feel like her emphasis on looking at details, trying to find something different but also just reading other headlines, were things that I’m practicing to learn.”
Coming to Regan’s session may have been the first step for attendees in strengthening their headline writing. To continue growing your head writing skills, Regan recommends exposure, such as reading, playing games like Man Bites Dog, which is a headline card game, and always being willing to learn more.
“You just get better at headlines the more you write; just keep practicing,” Regan said.