Writing better news satire headlines

Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash

In order to find written news satire, you used to have to go to The Onion or The New Yorker. Most of the stories were generalized because they had to serve every possible audience member.

With the rise of the internet, however, niche news satire sites have been catering headlines and articles to people with specific interests and inside knowledge.

Many of these headlines have broad crossover appeal, but their main strength is in their audience specificity. The more targeted they are, the more they succeed with the group that gets it.

Some of their additional power comes from how “punchy” they are, which means they make you laugh hard with very few words.

Lastly, it helps if you write so that your target readers can understand the headline on the first try. Confused readers rarely laugh.

Whether you’re writing news satire already, or you want to start writing news satire, or you’re just interested in the craft, you’ll want to know how to use these core techniques for headlines.

Stick to what your audience knows

If you’re writing for The Onion, your topics have to be national news that everyone knows about or everyday observations most people can relate to.

However, if you’re writing for a niche publication like Duffel Blog or Overheard Press, you have to be writing about military issues and fitness topics, respectively.

Headlines that are making waves in the military community might not even get a minute of airtime on cable news. By the same token, insider experiences that every gym rat knows about might leave other folks scratching their heads.

If you’re going to do a combination, make sure that you only have one insider remark. The other half of the joke has to be general. For example, you probably can’t write a military-specific headline that also requires deep CrossFit experience. You could, however, combine a military theme with an international hit film.

Tell the whole joke in the headline

If someone has to read the article to even get the first chuckle because the headline joke is weak, you have failed.

If the headline looks serious on purpose but people are supposed to laugh once they get into the actual story, you have failed.

If the headline looks like real news because people are supposed to know your publication is satire and see your headline as ironic, you have failed.

When you’re writing a headline, imagine that the only thing anyone will ever see is the headline.

For many people, they actually will only read the headline before making the decision to like and share your article. On the other hand, if someone would love your article but your headline isn’t funny enough to get them to look inside, then your article doesn’t really even exist to them.

Basically: Tell a hilarious joke that is clearly a joke and tell the whole entire joke in the headline. You can’t save the best for last if nobody makes it to the end.

Make the headline ridiculously short

The fewer words there are in your headline, the easier it will be for someone to wrap their head around what you’re saying and laugh about it.

Also, remember that some mobile previews of your article will cut off any more than about a dozen words of your headline.

To make your headline shorter, try dropping every unnecessary extra word. A “professor of military studies” can just be an “expert” in the headline if the other words hint at what his job is or it’s not really relevant to get the laugh.

You can also drop words dropped in normal news headlines. This can be the difference between “A Sergeant Major Is Disappointed That ‘The Force Awakens’ Is Not About Reveille And Morning PT” and “Sergeant Major Disappointed ‘The Force Awakens’ Not About Reveille, Morning PT.”

Aside from just cutting words, you’ll often have to rearrange them entirely to get a shorter outcome. Don’t be afraid to start over completely to get the right headline.

You may also need to have just one joke. A lot of headlines get bogged down by trying to add little twists. Save those for the article. One hearty laugh is enough for the headline, but two weak chuckles or outright confusion is garbage.

Avoid ambiguity

Make sure your headline won’t be misunderstood or misread. If one person misreads your headline in early drafting, it’s likely other readers will do the same.

If the joke is actually based on ambiguity, let the audience be in on the joke rather than making them wonder whether they misread the headline. Add some cue to the headline that lets them know you’re making a play on words.

Don’t make your headline so complex that people have to think about it really hard. You might be telling yourself that it’s a really sophisticated joke, but it’s more likely just ambiguous. The best way to overcome this is to explain your joke in simplest terms.

Write a lot of headlines

That’s it for advice on news satire headlines. After that, it’s best to:

  • Write a lot of headlines and save them somewhere
  • Edit them to excruciating degree
  • Present them to other people, preferably in written form (exclusively reading them out loud changes the reception sometimes)

I hope I read your article somewhere, and I hope it makes me laugh.

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