Hank on Heads, streamlined

Posted May 1, 2009

There was a packed house for Hank Glamann’s “Hank on Heads” session Friday morning. And if you were like me, you were trying to take notes in the dark while alternately laughing, groaning and marveling at the many headlines on Hank’s slides.

But it occurs to me that Hank’s session can be boiled down to some bullet points of good, common sense advice for headline writers.

So what’s the nut graph of the session?

It’s this: How many times have you sat down and read every word in the newspaper? Guess what? Your paper’s readers aren’t doing it any more often than you are.

So how do you get them to spend their 10-12 minutes of reading time on any particular story? It’s the headline that draws them in. You need to grab the readers, and grab them quick with your headline.

Headlines open the doors to stories and are the readers’ primary filtering mechanism.

With that in mind, here are some of the bullet points of Hank’s talk on good headline writing (in no particular order):

* The key concerns should be accuracy, fairness and clarity.

* Don’t let headline shortcuts convey a meaning that isn’t in the story. And don’t convict someone in a headline.

* Keep the alphabet soup for lunch. Don’t rely on unfamiliar acronyms or jargon in headlines. Unless the bulk of your readers will know what it means, don’t use it.

* Be careful about giving a headline a new meaning by using quoted single words. (Does it really say to the readers, “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, yeah sure.”)

* Quote headlines can be very effective, but they require a strong deck head to support them.

* Don’t use people’s names in a headline unless most of your readers know who the person is.

* Keep headlines conversational.

* Don’t be cute in a headline about a serious topic.

* Fake or joke headlines shouldn’t be used as place holders. Would you like to see that headline in print?

* Don’t be a slave to headline rules. The to-be verb can add clarity. So can punctuation marks. While you need to be careful of bad breaks, use common sense. Sometimes they don’t make a difference to the reader. Remember, the readers don’t know all of the rules—they only see the end result.

Finally, Hank says, you can have fun when writing headlines. You’ll convey that sense of fun to the readers.

Good advice, Hank!

Last updated May 4, 2009

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Gerri Berendzen, an ACES board member, is editorial production coordinator at the Quincy Herald Whig in Illinois.

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(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote 7 years, 7 months ago:

And newspapers’ reaction to the need to draw readers with good headlines? To get rid 0f as many professional headline writers as possible. Well done!

Peggy Hu wrote 7 years, 7 months ago:

I’d love to have more creative headlines, but one of the challenges our organization faces is that much of our audience consists of non-native speakers of English. This means they don’t understand the idioms, puns, and cultural references that many prize-winning headlines use to lure in readers.  Another issue is Search Engine Optimization; clever headlines often hurt a publication’s rankings in Google because—as Dan Gaines says—the search engine is very literal and has no sense of humor.  What to do, what to do?

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