8 rules for writing excellent headlines

  1. Be accurate. It goes without saying, but it is always important to be sure we are still playing within the boundaries of fact.
  1. Be conversational and engaging. How would you tell a friend about this story to get them interested? What is the specific aspect of the story that is most interesting and most engaging, and how can we highlight that in the headline? Use full names and complete-sentence style to achieve more conversational, Internet-style tone. Lighten up the language, when appropriate. Say the headline out loud. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d actually say to someone, then it’s probably not conversational and/or engaging enough. Well-known players do not need team and position identifiers. First names can even suffice for some superstars — LeBron, Kobe, etc.

Example: Use “Marcus Mariota just made a mockery of his showdown with Jameis Winston” over “Mariota’s four touchdowns lead Titans over Winston’s Bucs”

  1. Create a curiosity gap. Don’t give away the farm. Give the reader a reason to click, without resorting to complete clickbait. What will leave a reader wanting more, without making them feel duped? Tease a must-see photo or video, ask a question that begs to be answered, hint at details that a reader feels compelled to discover.

Examples: “3 future Hall of Famers who were snubbed in 2016” instead of “Forecasting the next few years of Hall of Fame voting results”; “Nick Saban got a puppy in the mail today” over “You’ll want to see what Nick Saban got in the mail today”

  1. Be clean and direct. When you say the headlines out loud, do the words come easy? Do they flow, roll and/or have some pop to them? Or do they take effort? The best headlines are simple, which is important when people are scrolling fast through their social feeds. Don’t use headline kickers. No matter how witty or clever they may be, they get in the way of directness.

Example: Use “Adrian Peterson went historically nuts on Sunday” over “History rewritten: Vikings RB Peterson sets rushing record in win”

  1. Make us feel something. What’s the emotion in this story? Who is going to feel compelled to click? Use powerful words that draw out a feeling, without resorting to unwarranted hyperbole. Embrace strong verbs. Be funny when funny is appropriate.

Examples: “The Vikings mascot just made a ridiculous contract demand,” “Alabama’s dynasty is dead, and here’s the proof,” “Devon Still’s update on his daughter will make you jump for joy,” “Nick Saban erupts on reporters over Charleston Southern question”

  1. Overstate only when you can also overdeliver. Is this story really “epic”? Is it really “the best thing you’ll see today”? Is it “amazing,” “unbelievable,” etc.? Would you roll your eyes at the headline if you read it on another site? Then it’s probably overwritten. Reserve the hyperbole for the stories that really deliver.
  1. Use numbers when applicable. Numbered lists are proven to work and hint at an easy-to-digest form of content. Use the actual number in the headline, rather than the number written out, for all numbers besides zero.

Example: Use “3 future Hall of Famers who were snubbed in 2016”s over “Three future …”

  1. Let hard/major news speak for itself. Major news often has all the juice it needs. “Tony Romo will miss two months with a broken clavicle” speaks for itself and still accomplishes the goals above. Treat serious or somber news with an appropriate, matching tone. Minor news from our writers that strains the ability to be creative can take straight headlines.

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