A News Story Doesn’t Have a Headline Any More. It Has Headlines.
As many as seven.
It’s been said that headlines are the new home page. That’s because most readers now come in through a “side door” — finding the news after clicking on a headline in Facebook, Google News, Reddit or somewhere else.
But each of those sources has its own rules and tricks for getting people to click, which means your stories need more than one headline.
Here’s a quick rundown of seven different types of headline you may have to write for a single story.
The Print Headline: A standard news headline written in “journalese,” a highly specific industry shorthand that has developed over decades. These headlines are written to fit across the top of the story in print, so last names, ‘single quotes’ and short nouns (pols, Rays, funds) and verbs (tout, mull, nix) and abbreviations (VW, Babs, EU) are often used to save space.
Example: SpaceX Rocket Explodes on Pad
The Reddit Headline: A plain English headline written for the article page, where there are no space limitations. This is what most people will see after clicking, and it’s what Reddit users will share when they post the link. The post might use a full name (Dilma Rousseff), last name (Rousseff) or title (Brazil’s President) depending on which is most clear to the average reader.
Example: A Rocket Just Exploded on SpaceX’s Launch Pad
The SEO Headline: A keyword-filled headline written to meet the needs of the Google News algorithm. Because the first few words are important, these headlines are often written in a weird Yoda-like backwards grammar. Full names, exact locations and trending keywords (SpaceX explosion) are a priority. Limited to 60 characters.
Example: SpaceX Explosion Rocks Launch Pad at Cape Canaveral
The Facebook Headline: A plain English headline that raises a question or leaves out some key piece of information about the story, creating a “curiosity gap” that will get readers to click. A second “Facebook description” field can either add fuel to the curiosity gap or answer the question to avoid seeming too much like clickbait.
Example: That SpaceX Explosion Blew Up One of Facebook’s Most Ambitious Projects / The rocket was bearing a satellite that would beam Internet to Africa.
The Newsletter Headline: A plain English headline that gets a reader to both open the email and click on the link. Similar to the Facebook headline but more directly addressing the reader and linking the news to their health, career or interests, whenever possible. Ideally between 28 and 39 characters and no more than 50, so it can be read from the inbox.
Example: Your trip to Mars just got delayed
The A/B Headline: A pair of headlines that are used at some news outlets as a test to see which gets more clicks. (Be thankful it’s only two. One publication requires 25.) In most cases, the differences are minor variations in emphasis or decisions on which details to include. Outlets that don’t do A/B testing sometimes revise after gauging reaction on social media.
Example: SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Destroyed in Explosion in Florida / Elon Musk’s SpaceX Rocket Destroyed in Explosion in Florida
The Splash Headline: A punchy two- or three-word ALL CAPS headline that is splashed across the home page at sites like the Huffington Post for major news. A descendant of the tabloid front-page “slammer” headline, it relies on wordplay, an eye-catching photo and familiarity with the subject to get the news across with few words.
Read More: Guide to Writing Headlines by Bill Mitchell; Most of your headline writing tricks don’t work, apart from these two by Rick Edmonds; Why Buzzfeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait by Ben Smith; “Homicide Victims Rarely Talk to Police,” and Other Horrible Headlines by Stephen J. Dubner