Good headlines achieve balance. They pique the reader’s interest without demanding it, they allude to the story without giving it away, and they give specific details without being technical. On top of that, good headlines should also be “funny, surprising, clear or crisp,” says Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate.
Writing a headline that meets these requirements evokes dread in writers and editors alike. “I think I’m bad at writing headlines—like every other journalist in the world—but every day I roll that boulder up the hill,” says Lauren Morello, an editor with Nature‘s news team.
Finding the Words
To tackle this task, Helmuth suggests setting aside time to brainstorm. “Write down a bunch of free-association words and phrases, without expecting that anything will be just right on the first try,” she says. For inspiration, writers can browse through other headlines in the publication. When editing, Helmuth occasionally works a particularly clever or memorable line in the story into the headline. “That gives credit to the writer implicitly and it helps emphasize a strong point,” she says.
Morello says that for her, the key to striking headline gold is the right verb. A favorite writing strategy is to look up a potential verb in a thesaurus, then go from entry to entry until she finds the right word. “Is there an -ly adverb in your hed?” she asks. “You need a better verb.” A recent Nature article on a widespread laboratory problem led with the short but powerful “Contamination hits cell work.”
Verbs can also help shorten headlines. Cutting down long headlines for esoteric news can be challenging, says Maia Weinstock, an editor at MIT News who has also worked for the educational platform BrainPOP as well as Discover magazine. In these cases, she advises focusing on the real-world impacts of the science. For example, a MIT News article describing a method for attaching drugs to nanoscale films ran with the headline “Advanced thin-film technique could deliver long-lasting medication.”
When writing shorter headlines, Weinstock advocates for alliteration. “I would argue the human mind perceives alliteration as it does a pun; such a hint of humor tends to give readers a warm and fuzzy feeling regardless of what the article is about,” she says. A recent Discover piece on coastal archaeology came with the headline “Finding fast-fading footprints,” for instance. “Alliteration can make headlines fun and you don’t run the risk of seeming flippant or inappropriate,” Morello adds.
For Kelly Oakes, the science editor at BuzzFeed UK, a site known for its lists and eye-catching headlines, writing starts with the headline. “If you can’t sum up an idea in one sentence, it might not be right for a post,” she says. She adds that the headline can change as the piece comes together.
Oakes says most posts on BuzzFeed are tested with multiple headlines, allowing editors to monitor how many people see each post and the percentage of clicks. They then choose to display to everyone the headline that is performing the best. “Putting numbers in headlines seems to work,” says Oakes. “Something about quantifying exactly what someone is going to get makes it seem more manageable and makes them more likely to click through.” BuzzFeed’s “A 34-step guide to string theory, as explained by cats” lets readers know exactly what to expect: a complex topic broken into digestible bits, accompanied by cat gifs.
What to Avoid
Oakes notes that the aim of a headline is not solely to get readers to click but also to appropriately manage their expectations. Readers who are satisfied after finishing a post are more likely to share it with others, she says. Helmuth agrees and says headlines that promise more than they deliver can build resentment among readers over time. “You want the headline to make the best possible case for reading the story, as long as it’s the best possible fair case,” she says.
Terms that oversell the news, like “mind-blowing” and “ground-breaking,” should be retired. Opt instead for more specific or curious vocabulary. Whenever possible, Weinstock says to avoid well-worn constructions that rely on phrases like “scientists discover” or “mystery solved.” Also, headlines that pose a question that can be answered by a simple yes or no may be rejected out of hand.
Vague headlines can sometimes be rescued, on purpose, by a more descriptive dek. A recent Nature news story began with “Ecotourism rise hits whales,” followed by the more informational “Desire to observe whales and dolphins up close is affecting animals’ behaviour.”
Types of Headlines
Headlines generally fall into one of a handful of categories. There is the superlative headline, which promises to reveal the oldest, largest or scariest something known to man. “Our most-read story at Slate last year was ‘What is the world’s most dangerous animal?,’” says Helmuth. “It was a classic of the superlative genre, with some mystery and relevance.” These headlines are effective but come in handy only for a particular class of story.
The intriguing adjective headline relies on descriptive adjectives to stoke a reader’s curiosity. It could be something that is scary, odd, shocking, or adorable. Slate’s “The science behind the amazing, terrifying firenadoes in California” doubles up on adjectives to introduce firenadoes, already an intriguing noun on its own.
Most headlines fall into the “tell me” category, differentiated mostly by length and tone. These days many web publications seem to favor longer headlines containing key buzzwords to optimize search engine hits, says Weinstock. Aiming to include both a scientific concept and its potential impact, MIT News ran this headline: “RNA combination therapy for lung cancer offers promise for personalized medicine.”
While editors bear the brunt of headline writing, Morello implores that writers provide a working headline. “Even if I throw out your entire headline, seeing how you have framed things is helpful to me, which makes me think nice thoughts about you,” she says. “If you can write a really nice headline, I will think really nice thoughts about you.”
Tiên Nguyễn is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is an organic chemist and communications specialist for the Princeton University chemistry department. She aims to make chemistry more accessible to the public through her writing, outreach and educational videos. Her writing interests also include drug discovery, physics and gender equality. Follow Tiên on Twitter @mustlovescience.