This headline process can make your stories better

The exercise of coming up with a headline can also be a great way to come up with the right story idea.

Here are a few ideas to get you started. While you’re at it, read this post to learn the characteristics of a great headline.

Start brainstorming headlines at the idea stage

Headline writing is an extremely challenging process. It’s hard to be original and descriptive and creative in about 70 characters.

That’s why it’s a good idea to build that brainstorming process into the beginning of your workflow — when your story is still just an idea. Do that and the headline brainstorm suddenly becomes a tool for shaping your story ideas.

A well-written headline and a well-formed story pitch have a lot in common: The focused promise of an interesting story.

So when you have an idea for a story or project, set some time aside for a brainstorm and set the bar high. What’s the best possible headline you can come up with? The earlier you can start brainstorming headline ideas, the better.

Now, what should this brainstorm look like?

Read and print this list

Right now you’re reading about the process of writing a good headline. But what is a good headline? What does it look like?

This post can help answer those questions: How to make great headlines

It illustrates some of the essentials of a good headline.

After you’ve read through the list, you can print it out to help inform your brainstorm.

Find collaborators

This is a key part of a headline brainstorm.

Like any creative exercise, it helps to have a friend or two. Someone to bounce around ideas and support promising ideas.

It’s also hard to step away from a story and imagine something that will connect to people who are seeing it for the first time. How will people react when they see it in their Facebook News Feeds for the first time?

I know it can be difficult to find the time to organize a group brainstorm. But even 10 minutes can make the difference. The brainstorm can also happen over email, or better yet, Slack.

You’ll need a white board or notebook

See this?


This was the headline field for the piece you’re reading right now. So narrow. So technical. So final.

I had to get away from that environment. After all, headline writing is a creative process. You need creative space to do it right.

Find a blank slate, like a whiteboard, a notebook or a Google Doc, and use it as your brainstorming canvas. Don’t worry what you write — bad ideas, good ideas, incomplete ideas. Just write.

Write several headlines for one story

It’s rare to come up with the best idea on your first attempt. Or second. Or third.

With your whiteboard or notebook, dedicate a good five minutes to writing down ideas. Lots of ideas. Just keep writing — the more the better.

This exercise forces you to think creatively about what the headline — and the story — could be. It challenges you to not settle. And it gets the bad ideas out there in the open so you can see them and cross them out.

At the end of a five-minute brainstorm you should have a nice list of headlines to work with.

Bonus tips

A few more tips from NPR’s headline writing pros Stephanie Federico, Amy Morgan and Colin Dwyer:

  • Pinpoint the first impression: What precisely got you hooked on this story? First impressions are good starting points
  • Look for a key quote, a personal story or a play on words. How can you play off the photo? Can you involve the reader?
  • Sharpen your verbs. A vivid or unusual verb can punch the reader in the gut (in a good way!)
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Try creating a #Headlines channel in Slack.