Words Before the Words: The Science of a Headline

By January 27, 2014Writing about Writing

Have you ever read an article that you didn’t actually care about just because the name of the link you clicked was funny? Don’t feel bad if you ever clicked on “Is Kim Kardashian a Mutant Space Monster”, in fact, feel happy for whoever created that headline because they deserve to feel like a genius.

With so many things fighting for your attention online, news writers need to figure out how to capture their readers attention with a few words instead of just using bigger font. To visualize this, I have found 3 good headlines and 3 bad headlines and I will break down why they are or are not effective!

The Three Awesome Ones

Good headline 1


While the actual story seems a little weird, the story probably would make you want to click on it because its writer decided to relay on the oddity aspect of it. Immediately what went through a random reader named Joe Random was,” What the heck”? Other stories are much more newsworthy, such as the typhoon in the Philippines, but this headline focuses on how weird it is that the subject (the man) nailed himself (the weird part) to the Red Square (Russia, where these political protests don’t really get highlighted). Joe Random probably kept reading because… “what the heck”?


Good Headline 2


This headline plays very heavily off Jimmy Kimmel’s status, but also doesn’t give away the reason why people want him fired. This way, Joe Random doesn’t read the headline and move on, instead he has to actually read (at the very least) the first paragraph to understand why this is newsworthy. A good headline should tell you something without telling you too much.

Better Headline 3


This headline plays off of a prominent news event very well. There are many angles to this story, but this headline is playing off of worry. Instead of just focusing on how many people died, like other articles are doing, the headline broadcasts that the obvious act of supplying aid to the area is going to be pretty ineffective. That thought is pretty unsettling and makes Joe Random want to know what exactly is making supplying food so difficult as well as what he can do about it.

The Three Horrid Old Headline Witches of Bad Headlinington

Good Headline 3

Joe Random wouldn’t have opened read past this headline. Not because he is a big Katy Perry fan and despises Lady Gaga, but because everything is all in the headline. There’s nothing else you can ask about this other than “Why” and “What does it look like”. However, all other questions that could have convinced Joe Random to read are answered in the headline and leaves no reason to actually read the article. Joe doesn’t care anyway because Teenage Dream was fantastic.

Bad Headline 1

In all honestly, news shouldn’t rely on that their readers read a previous article. This headline acts like its part of a reoccurring series. It’s like when Joe Random’s old grandpa tells him what to get from the grocery store and as Joe is trying to leave, he says “Oh yeah and there’s something else”. Except with this headline, Joe’s grandpa was just sitting there in his house and randomly shouts at Joe “Oh yeah and there’s something else”. Even though this is news that people should keep up with, it’s one story, so keep it as such.

Bad Headline 2

This is a pretty nightmarish headline because it’s not sure what it wants to focus on. Just as a note, the headline of the link to the article was “OSU WR: We’d wipe field with Bama, FSU“. Even though he doesn’t care about some random wide receiver on what he presumes is Ohio State, not Oregon State or Ostrich State; Joe Random clicked on the link thinking this was going to be some controversial awesome fire starting article he can show to his Alabama fan friends (even though Stanford totally should be in the National Championship). However, the headline now says that Urban Meyer says that Ohio State is Number 2 without specifying with poll they are number 2 in. Also this headline literally translates to “Urban Meyer says Ohio State is Number 2”. Anyone could have read a poll and said this, Alabama’s coach probably told his wife that Ohio State is Number 2 at breakfast this morning. So ESPN probably should have found a different reason to entice their audience to read than “Urban Meyer says Ohio State is Number 2” or they should have stuck with the story the promised, not try to commit journalistic witchcraft.