Writing & Storytelling

4 Headline Mistakes to Avoid

Newspaper headline

Headlines get twice as much readership as body copy, according to a study by The Poynter Institute.

To write headlines that boost clickthrough rates and get the word out, even to people who won’t read your text, here are four headline “don’ts.”

  1. Avoid vague heads.

These are actual headlines that have appeared recently in my clients’ communications:

  • Help me cope
  • Keeping it together
  • Prepare for the worst

These headlines are so vague, they could all apply equally to stories about my sister getting ill, my business going bankrupt or my mini-mart running out of Twix bars.

If your headline could apply to any message, then you shouldn’t use it for any message. The best headlines are ultra-specific. Write a unique headline for your unique message.

  1. Reverbify label heads.

Here are a few of the label heads that have crossed my path lately:

  • Chemical update
  • Manager’s letter
  • Field distribution

And, drum roll, please — the worst label head I’ve ever seen, from a marketing piece:

  • Sales Letter

If you find yourself writing label heads, then remember, most of your “readers” will never read the text. So tell them what you want them to know about the topic.

Instead of:

  • Weather update

Write:

  • Work from home tomorrow
  • Please stay safe and warm during Detroit’s snow emergency, parking ban
  1. Stop ing-ing.

Barney Kilgore, the legendary editor of The Wall Street Journal, once wrote: “If I see ‘upcoming’ slip in[to] the paper again, I’ll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.”

I’m with Kilgore: Stop ing-ing. Especially in headlines.

Who ever decided that “Present participling noun” was a clever headline? You’ve seen (maybe even written!) ing-ing headlines like these:

  • Hiring to win
  • Introducing the strategic growth incentive
  • Enabling better outcomes and lower costs through integration

Instead of writing about the organization’s actions, focus on your readers’ needs.

Which would you rather read: “Transforming and deepening our strategic partnerships”? Or “6 ways to deepen strategic partnerships”?

  1. Tighten loose heads.

More actual headlines that have crossed my desk recently:

  • Preparing for the successful sale of your business

(I’m sure there was a more successful way to write this headline.)

  • What is intellectual property, and why should you care about it?

(I already don’t care about it because this is such a bad headline.)

These heads read less like headlines than story ideas. “I know, let’s do a story on what is intellectual property, and why should you care about it!”

A story idea isn’t a headline.

So synthesize your message into 40 characters or less. Communicate your key idea — not just your topic. And show your readers why they should care.


Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Don’t miss a single tip: Sign up for Ann’s email newsletter here.

Copyright © 2024 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

[Photo credit: zerbar]

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Ann Wylie

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