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Headline writing: 10 tips on headline language

1. “Down style” or “up style”? Down style is sometimes called sentence style. If you use this style, as the University Daily Kansan does, uppercase only the first word of a headline and proper nouns.

If you use up style, as The New York Times does, uppercase nearly every word except articles (the, a, an) and conjunctions (and, but).

Follow the same guidelines with decks.

Down style, as in The Kansan:  Hashinger Hall damaged by burst pipe
Up style, as in The New York Times: House Expands Children’s Health Care

2. Try for logical sentence structure, active voice (noun-verb), strong verbs and good phrasing. For example:

Students embrace Kansas’ early-college experiment

3. Use present tense verbs for events in the immediate past, future tense for coming events.

Immediate past: Jayhawks defeat Tigers
Future: Regents to review University budget

4. Make every word count. That’s good advice in any type of writing, but especially in headline writing. A wasted word or an imprecise word can easily make for a bland, meaningless headline. Consider this example:

Knife incident occurs at Jet Lag

Incident and occurs tell us virtually nothing. Notice how a stronger verb and more precise language enhance the meaning and make the headline more interesting:

Knife fight injures 3 at Jet Lag

5. Don’t use proper names unless the name is well enough known to be recognized immediately. The same is true for abbreviations and acronyms. And don’t overdo abbreviations and acronyms; your headlines can end up looking like alphabet soup. Here are two examples to avoid:

SPCYR says Fla. bridge             Spiegler to replace Arnold
needs completion ASAP           on University subcommittee

6. Eliminate most articles, adverbs and adjectives in headlines for news stories. In feature headlines, consider keeping them in if they help the headlines sound more conversational. For example, notice how the stripped-down language gives the first headline a sense of immediacy. In the second one, the words “a” and “an” add fluidity and indicate a more lighthearted story.

Officer smells smoke, arrests homeowner in arson
It’s a world record: 249 miles without an extension cord

7. Avoid headlinese: nabs, raps, rips, eyes, ups …

Jayhawks nab Md. recruit, eye juco star

Such language makes you sound like a hack.

8. Watch for ambiguity and double-entendre, particularly when a noun in your headline could be a verb and vice versa. Cultivate a suspicious mind – and a dirty mind – so you can catch headlines like these before publication. (Yes, they are real.)

LSU officially grabs Stanford’s Johnson

Lesbians like straight men, researchers find

Bush to attend summit on drugs

9. Avoid editorializing, exaggeration and generalization. For example:

Extremist group to protest on campus (Who determines what an “extremist group” is?)

Sex offenders flocking to Wyoming (A dramatic overstatement.)

Precautions are needed (This could apply to so many stories that it is meaningless.)

10. Avoid the temptation to write cute heads or to use faddish or commercial slogans. Especially avoid puns on names.

Puns work occasionally, and if you try one, don’t draw attention to it with quotation marks. That’s the equivalent of jumping up and down and screaming, “Look how cute I am!” Here are examples of headlines that never should have been published:

Downs and out               The ‘Wright’ choice            Finally, Self respect

Cookies to raise dough for VFW

‘Bolled’ over by cotton

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