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20. Headlines

I write to be read. If I want the readers to read what I write, I have to catch their eye. I'll manage that if I have a good headline. What's a good headline ? It's an invitation. It must make you want to read the story, without exaggerating, cheating or lying. It's the cherry on top of the writing work. Therefore it must be carefully crafted. 

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

I’m a journalist, I’m possessive: don’t mess with my writings ! I don’t like people rewriting my copy as they wish. I demand complete ownership over what’s published under my name and I stand by that demand. Therefore I work hard for my copy not to need rewriting nor any correction, in form or in content. This is a rule both for the copy and the headline. When I submit my text for proofreading, it must be ready for printing, that is to say with a headline, and if needed a subhead. It makes me feel safer and helps the editor and the proofreader.

Genres to choose from

To each genre of stories corresponds a type of headline. And each type can be segmented: serious or light, long or short, small and big, simple or complicated, informative or incentive, etc. Besides, your headline also depends on the typographic chart of the newspaper. Some will ask you to stick to one liners, others will allow you two lines…

The one-sentence major headline. The best headline always is the simplest one. Why say in two sentence what you can say in one ? Why waste your space with details when one headline can sum everything up ? That is the best kind of headlines, which answers those two capital questions in one sentence : who ? And what ? :

“Caesar invades Great Britain”

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For the once-sentence incentive genre, the best headline expresses the writer’s feeling in as less words as possible :

«Call to arms against Caesar !”

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Accessory headlines. Once I’ve found my major headline, I can add one or two subheads. If I add one above my main headline and one under, it’s a three sentence headline. Or I can just add one subhead under my main headline.

For the informative genre, one subhead answers the questions Where? and When? ; the other answers : How ? Why ? With whom ? With what ? It brings an aesthetic symmetry, as the two subheads frame the main headline, as with a painting.

Subhead : “Landed last night in Dover with his legions”

Headline : Cesar invades Great Britain

Subhead : “The Roman proconsul in Gaul is looking to lay siege to London thank to the German cavalry”

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For the incentive genre, the subhead stay informative but serves as grounding for the main headline, then the other subhead works as a crescendo, in the same spirit as the headline.

Subhead : “The Roman proconsul’s legions try to invade Great Britain”

Title : “To arms agains Caesar”

Subhead : “The leader of the Briton leads the Resistance and begs Gaul to fight”

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There a mix formula : the two-sentence headline. It’s made up of a main one-sentence headline and a subhead synthesizing the two-subheads of the three-sentence genre.

Headline : “Caesar invades Great Britain”

Subhead : “The Roman proconsul heads his legions towards London, after landing in Dover yesterday”

This formula comes with a lead introducing the copy. This inverted pyramid formula offers three reading levels to the reader before he begins reading the story.

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All headlines are adaptations or mixes of these three genre. The layout commands the template.

The one-sentence headline fits all types of commentary : editorials, opinion pieces, columns. The best type is one word per column: 1 col: “Fight!” 2 cols: “No pasaran!”, 3 cols: “Vade retro Caesar!”

Two-sentence headlines fit reports.

“Britanix’s children play rugby while their father sharpen his axes”

“From our special envoy in Great Britain – an exclusive story on those people determined to propel Caesar back in the Channel”

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Two-sentences headlines fit investigations

“Caesar funds his campaigns with dirty money”

“The Roman proconsul is funded by bankers and slave traders”

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Two-sentences headlines fit interviews

An interview with Britanix, the leader of the Briton, ready to fight the Roman
“Caesar came by boat, he’ll go back swimming”

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Put subheads in the body of your article : they’re not just visual help making the body lest compact and easier to read. They give rhythm, they catch the eye. They must be carefully thought up so as not to be redundant with the main heads. If well chosen, they’ll highlight useful info: “Tea stocks”, “1000 horses”, “30 sentinels” “Scared ? You’re kidding, right ?”.

Avoid lurid headlines

Sometimes the competition will lead the press to choose lurid headlines, constructed as play on words, or play on the names of books, films, TV shows, etc. Sometimes, giving in to this temptation has funny results. For example, writing “Caesar, just another Roman Rambo !”… but is that relevant for a serious newspaper ? By giving in to those easy options, you lower journalistic writing to the level of comedians. This should be left to satirical newspapers.