Headline writing: 2 points about counts

Before computers, editors had to count each letter of a headline to make sure the headline would fit on a page.

We don’t have to do that anymore, but two principles of headline counting still help create effective headlines.

1. Try to fill each line to within two counts. You don’t want to leave gaping, distracting holes on a page or create a headline in which one line has a drastically different count from the others. A headline should guide readers into a story, and problems in headline count will detract from that.

For instance, look at the two headlines below. The headline on the right has two lines of similar length, creating symmetry and making it easy to focus on the language of the headline.

The one on the left has a first line that is far shorter than the second, making the headline look as if the first line is missing information or is separate from the second line.

New York Philharmonic                                   New York Philharmonic
to give concert on campus in February        to perform at Lied Center

Don’t obsess about exact counts, though. You are better off with an accurate, fluid headline that is a few counts short than one that fits perfectly but sounds stilted and padded. Let your eyes and ears guide you.

2. All letters are not the same size. Some take up more room (M and W are the longest), while some take up much less (f, i, l, t and j are the shortest). In most cases, you can see on the computer screen how well a headline fits, but knowledge of character length can make headline writing much easier.

Below is the old system for counting headlines, one that gives a good sense of gauging character length.

A count of 1
most lowercase letters (except f, i, l, t, j, m, w)
capital I
all numerals except 1
question marks
spaces between words

A count of 1½
most capital letters (except M, W and I)
lowercase m and w
$, %, &
and the dash

A count of 2
capital M and W

A count of ½
commas, periods and other punctuation not noted above
the numeral 1
lowercase letters f, i, l, t and j

NEXT: Learn about punctuation and splits

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