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5 characteristics that make a good headline

Eric Athas • October 25th, 2015

There is actually a formula for writing good headlines. But it’s not at all satisfying: Make interesting stories that people care about and promise those stories in your headlines.

In other words, the best headlines are the ones that promise the great content they bring you to — not necessarily the ones that only make you click.

So assuming your story is the right one (and this process of writing headlines can help determine that), how can you write the best possible headline for it?

You can start with these characteristics. The next time you’re brainstorming ideas, give this list a scan. (I made a one-page PDF version if you want to save and print this list).

Headlines should be specific

Pretend an elevator door is shutting and you want to tell someone on the other side about a story. You’ll need to get the most interesting point across fast, which means you can’t be vague about it.

Same goes for your headline. When people come across it, they’re going to make a snap decision: Do I care about this? Be specific — include enough detail so they can connect to the story and make a decision.

You might think it’s better to be mysterious with details to make people click. To make them feel obligated to view the story. Like if I had titled this piece, The Five Tricks That Will Make You Think Differently About Writing. 

But the purpose of a good headline isn’t only to get people to click (or at least it shouldn’t be for public media). We want to create a positive experience for people — from spotting the headline to clicking to reading/watching/listening to sharing to returning. We don’t want people to feel tricked or disappointed, right?

And again — if it’s a good story, the headline will reflect it.

Headlines should be easy to understand

When someone sees your headline, there’s a pretty good chance they’re looking at it on their mobile device while skimming Facebook. The screen is small and the experience is fast.

You have a second or two to make your point. So when you’re writing your headline, make sure people can easily understand it.

Keep it simple — avoid names and acronyms that aren’t universally recognized. For example, if I had titled this piece, Eric Athas of the NPR ETT on headlines.

Also avoid words that almost only appear in headlines (5 headline ideas you can mull to bolster your stories).

You should also consider how people will be able to understand our headline out of context, without an image next to it (similarly, you should be thoughtful about how your photo matches with your headline when they are together — the wrong pairing can be trouble). Remember: The headline is possibly the only piece of your story that can travel to all corners of the Internet. It should make sense to people wherever it lands — Facebook, Twitter, Google, RSS.

Headlines should lead to a reaction

You’re writing headlines for people. People looking for something interesting to read or watch or listen or share. How will your target audience react when they see your headline? Will they be curious? Surprised? Sad? Angry? Happy? Will they click on it? Will they share it?

Try to imagine this scenario. Test it out. Show a colleague your headline and ask for a gut-reaction.

Take a look at this headline for a story by NPR’s Frank Langfit:


What’s your reaction to this headline? For me, it’s curiosity and surprise. I want to learn more.

Headlines should be a clear promise

The headline is a promise. It’s a few words that travel around the Internet and promise people something you’ve created.

With that in mind, make sure the promise is specific, clear, easy to understand — and accurate. It shouldn’t over-promise or under-promise.

This is where you can use headline writing as a method for brainstorming (and I’ve written a separate piece about headlines for story planning). Before you’ve created your story, even when it’s still in the idea stage, write a few headline possibilities. And aim high — what is the best thing you could promise people? At the end of the reporting, the story may not perfectly fit under the headline, but it’s a starting point to work from.

Headlines should have voice — without being overly clever

Here’s the thing — headlines, just like your stories, should be infused with voice and style and creativity. This is the case especially for public media.

With that in mind — be cautious of the overly clever headline.

A headline with a pun or a cultural reference is fun to write, but is it forced? Will people get it? Or will people spend too much time trying to “get” your joke?

Again — creative and unique and full of life, but not too clever. Don’t use sight of the promise.

Now that you’ve read through the checklist, keep in mind: These are not rules. They’re ideas. And they all work together to help construct a headline that delivers an enjoyable experience for people.

Save and print the headline list

Get it in PDF form here.