How do you think up good headlines? Do you use certain techniques? John Schlander, a news editor at the St. Petersburg Times, came up with this list of methods he uses when he gets stuck. As he noted, “These help me get beyond groaner puns.”
WORD ASSOCIATION: Maybe the most common method. Think of key words
do some free association to develop angles. This is how most wordplay, good and
bad, seems to develop. Good wordplay makes good use of contrast, or delightfully
twists a phrase or is somehow pleasing to the ear. It's not a groaner pun, and it
doesn't rely purely on alliteration. A great wordplay example from sports (and a
monthly contest winner): So close, so Favre (when Brett Favre and the Packers stole
a game from the Bucs). Think also of rhyming words, or words that sound like they look: gritty kitty, for example, or beep and boom. The reader can almost hear the headline.
MENTAL PICTURE: What picture comes to mind as you read the story? Use that in your headline. Prime examples: Uprooting fallen history and Square peg, round world. Both are recent headline contest winners. Also, these recent heads: Wearing jackets of ice, crops weather freeze; Flecks of Hitchcock, swirled in a snow globe; Bashful moon to blush as earth passes by; and From intensive care to death chamber.
PERFECT VERB: A fresh verb can really make a headline. Great example: Summer muscles its way into spring. Deputies inch toward unionization. This also creates a strong mental picture. Strong, well-chosen verbs often do that.
PERSPECTIVE: Come at the head from a different viewpoint. For example, instead of writing the head from the government's perspective (Officials consider later high school starting times), write it from the affected person's perspective (High schoolers, don't reset alarm yet). This is also good advice for reporters writing government stories. Last month's winning headline directly addressed readers: Have faith, the rookie does. A change of perspective can do wonders.
EMOTION: Go for the emotion in the story. Is there anger? Love? Frustration?
Desperation? Appreciation? Respect? Elation? Shame? Embarrassment? Readers
respond to emotion. Hit 'em in the gut or the heart. A headline contest winner: In the
hot glare of fame, secret is revealed (Classy but still emotional head on story about Dr.
J acknowledging Wimbledon sensation Alexandra Stevenson is his daughter.) And
these: Thief wanted gifts; she left him have it (can you feel the revenge?); Leaving as
she stayed: quietly (strength in the face of adversity); Brage's little house of hope; Heal
ever, forget never (on a post-Columbine story); and When dialing # * turns into @!$&!
QUOTE : Is there a great quote that sums up the story? Don't overuse
technique, but it can be effective: “He never had a chance.”
FORESHADOWING: Give readers a compelling detail that foreshadows
and makes them wonder, but doesn't frustrate them with vagueness. The "hot glare
of fame'' head fits in this category, too. Instead of banging people over the head
tabloid-style with Dr. J admits tennis star is his love child, we took another, better
SPECIFICS: Sometimes, just making a headline more specific really
helps. If you
have a rather vague head, sub in specifics. This method works on many everyday
heads. Instead of Slain woman mourned at service, try 1,500 attend funeral for
slain woman. How many people have that great a number of mourners show
up for their funeral? This was what made the story good enough to go
on a section cover.