Five-Minute Practice: Writing Headlines

Writing good headlines is one of the most important skills you can develop as a writer. Headlines, after all, are your come-hither attraction — they do the job of luring the reader into your story. And that’s true whether you’re writing advertisements vying for attention on a busy page, a blogger writing posts that compete with thousands of online content daily or a magazine writer hoping to get your human-interest story noticed.

Five Minutes Collecting

This exercise involves collecting all the best headlines you find five minutes at a time. Since it’s not that easy to scan through thousands of content, your best bet is to go to places where well-written headlines are almost always the norm.

We suggest going to Digg and the BBC News website. The former because stories with well-written headlines are almost always the ones that rise to the top of the Digg charts; the latter, because the BBC has been the most consistent news source when it comes to putting out concise and informative headlines.

For the next five minutes, collect at least five headlines from each of those websites. Note how few words these great headlines normally use, all while managing to tell an informative gist of the story. Just the habit of collecting and being exposed to them can end up affecting the way you write your headlines later

Five Minutes Writing

You can alternate the “collecting” exercise with actual headline writing practice. In this one, you write your own headlines for existing stories for the next five minutes.

We suggest going to your favorite blog, taking the first five stories in the front page and creating your own headlines for them. Don’t cherry-pick your stories — you’ll just end up defaulting to stories that will naturally fit your preferred headline structures. Instead, pick a busy blog that gets a dozen or so updates a day, then take the first five stories on the page, whatever they may be.

  • Use whatever techniques you noticed employed in the headlines you collected that can be applicable to each story. Additionally, try to adhere to the basic principles of good headlines.
  • Keep it short. Twelve words or less. If you can do five words (as the BBC is so talented at doing), all the better.
  • Make it rich in informative clues. You can’t tell the whole story from a headline, but you can offer a decent summary with clever use of word choice and arrangement.
  • Load it with the right keywords. The most important keywords in the story should appear in your headline, as that contributes immensely to the summary.
  • Keep it predictable. What’s implied in the headline should be what the story is about. Forget all that clever trickery. People will appreciate straightforward and informative headlines better every time.