The changing art of headline writing

by Andrew Strange – Jan 08, 2021

Headline writing is perhaps under-appreciated in today’s online world. We get so excited about the animations and powerful imagery that we find on a landing page that we forget about the four or five words that persuaded us to click on it in the first place. But as technology has evolved and ever more content has become available, those few words have become more important than ever before.

In some ways headlines have taken a step back. Seventeenth century pamphleteer John Hammond would have been far more at home online than some of the celebrated tabloid headline writers of the 1980s. His 1643 pamphlet A Most Certain, Strange and True Discovery of a Witch would encourage clicks in a way that The Sun’s infamous ‘Gotcha!’ headline announcing the sinking of the General Belgrano would not.

Online headlines have a life of their own and must stand on their own two feet. Controversial as it was, Gotcha worked at the time because it always sat next to an image of a battleship. The headline and the design worked together. With no context, it doesn’t translate onto social media or an online content list where readers take just seconds to decide where to click. But before I criticise The Sun too much, I would certainly be conflicted about my clicking choice if I had to choose between Hammond’s witch and its famous ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ story – I would almost certainly read both.

Of course, while all this is an excuse to bring in some of my favourite headlines the fact is that while short snappy headlines and puns still work for print, they must be adapted to something more descriptive and with more context for digital channels. The headline writer also needs to consider the key words and phrases that will propel their piece to the top of the search rankings – Google plays the important part in attracting readers that was once played by devoured hamsters.

Unlike some, I’m a big fan of using book, song and movie titles as headlines. Over the years I’ve used many variations on the Charles Dickens classic, from ‘Great Expectations’ to ‘Grape Expectation’ and ‘Freight Expectations’ depending on the subject matter. None of them would work online however and assuming a professional audience and a study of popular search terms, I’d have to change the latter to something like ‘Positive sentiment grows in the logistics industry’ to attract any visits.

But there’s more to online headline writing than simply spelling it out in plain English and obeying the demands of Google. Most of us are daunted by the prospect of reading a long article (especially if it’s about freight). But change the headline to something that suggests short, easy-to-digest chunks of content that aren’t too taxing, like ‘10 Reasons to be Positive About Freight’ and those in the industry will start clicking away. Throw in a ‘how to’ message, such as ‘How to grow your freight business’ and you’ll get even more interest. At Wardour, we had huge interest when we ran a story called ‘How to Find Lost Money’, leading to press coverage across the country.

Headline writing can be a tricky business, however, and even online you have to think long and hard about what you are writing to avoid making yourself or the person you are writing about look foolish. ‘Churchill Flies Back to Front’ for example, would have worked perfectly well on your phone but did nothing for the headline writer or the Prime Minister – whether it was ever really published seems open to question since it has been attributed to several wartime leaders. And the Aberdeen Press & Journal is still fervently denying that it published ‘Aberdeen Man Drowned at Sea’ after the Titanic sank – even a headline it says it never wrote has damaged its reputation for more than a century.

There is still plenty of print out there but we now have a generation growing up reading online only who will sadly miss out on the Freddie Starr headlines and those like the hilarious football classic ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious’ or the alarmingly anti-European ‘Up Yours Delors’. Increasingly those of us who write headlines have to look to the science and the click-through rate, as much as to the artistry.

Published Jan 08, 2021

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