A story that tells how a woman and her boyfriend were arrested for a string of bank robberies might be headlined: “Bandit, Boyfriend Held in Robberies.”
But avoid what editors call “headlinese,” verbs that appeal to headline writers just because they are short.
Verbs like “probe,” “eye,” “nab,” “vie,” and “huddle” almost never are used in conversation, so they don’t belong in headlines.
A headline should match the tone of the story. Hard news stories demand a straight summary, like this headline from The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper, “Smugglers Dent Zimbabwe’s Gold Production.”
The headline makes sure the reader knows exactly what the story is about. Feature headlines, on the other hand, may only hint at the story’s content, since they are written primarily to pique the reader’s curiosity.
For example, Argentina’s Buenos Aires Herald ran this headline over a review of a new recording: “Sassy Madonna Goes Back in Time.”
Because headlines have to fit in a restricted amount of space, the newspaper editor creates headlines the way you would build a jigsaw puzzle.
The copy editor for an American newspaper — the Newark Star-Ledger — Joel Pisetzner, says, “I put words together like assembling a kidnap note.
Scramble, rescramble, mix and match.” While it can be fun, editors say it’s important to always keep the reader in mind.
Avoid trite or overused expressions and be extremely careful with puns or double meanings. Headlines that try too hard to be funny, clever, or gripping often fail.
Above all, headlines must be accurate and honest, not misleading. What is in the headline must be in the story. Nothing annoys a reader more than a story that doesn’t deliver what the headline promised.