Online newswriting lesson 1: Headlines

While learning to write online news stories, I’ve discovered the first and perhaps most important thing to consider is the headline. Headlines are important in traditional print stories – they have to be eye-catching and their job is to sell the story. Headlines are equally as important in online news, if not more so, in getting a reader to find the story but the focus is a bit different. The purpose of an online headline is to get a reader to click into a story and read more. More hits mean you are better connecting with your audience. Here are some tips I’ve gathered from various sources on how to write a decent online headline.

Keep it short and sweet: Stick to 5-7 words. Research shows online users scan stories rather than read it in its entirety. They’re impatient so keeping stories and their headlines short is the way to go.

Make sure it can stand on its own: While print headlines only appear in the one place (duh), online headlines will show up everywhere on your website in links, search bars etc. so it must travel well on its own. It also must work in a variety of platforms not just the original news organisation website (consider RSS, twitter, Facebook).

Must make sense without context: Online users should be able to read the headline and understand exactly what the story is going to be about. This means taking into account the global reach of your story and not relying on the users’ assumed knowledge, images or the rest of the story for it to make sense. This is probably why the ‘punny’ headlines so often seen in print fall flat in an online environment. Foust says in his book Online Journalism: Principles and Practices of News for the Web, “This is partly because the online user is usually looking for specific information quickly and does not want to decipher a pun or figure out what the words in a headline actually refer to.”

Be clear and concise: A no-brainer really as it’s one of the basics of newswriting but it becomes even more vital in an online environment when you’re trying to make it easier for the impatient online user. This means use a verb and simple, active words.

Write for search engines: Search engine optimisation basically means you must anticipate the key words people are going to type into google and put them in your headline. Pages that have the most matches will turn up higher in the search engine results. The higher up in the list, the more likely your story gets hits.

Deliver what you promise: My online journalism tutor often says this. Rather than write some exciting (and perhaps misleading) headline, there needs to be a degree of predictability so users will know whether they will like the article before they click. People do not return to sites that promise something they do not deliver.

Want to know more? Here are some useful links:

  1. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/headlines-bbc.html
  2. http://www.conversationmarketing.com/2008/10/how_to_write_an_internetready.htm
  3. http://www.newmediabytes.com/2008/03/25/differences-between-web-online-print-headlines/
  4. http://www.newmediabytes.com/2008/04/03/how-to-write-web-headlines-for-people/
  5. http://www.newmediabytes.com/2008/04/10/how-to-write-headlines-for-search-engines/
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