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Want to Write Better Headlines? Here鈥檚 What Not to Do

Want to Write Better Headlines? Here鈥檚 What Not to Do

By Julie Rogers

In the first post of the How Can I Write Better Headlines series, I talked about things you SHOULD do to write great headlines for association audiences and beyond. Telling you what works is helpful, but you also need to know which headline errors to avoid. So, think of this as the 鈥渨hat not to do鈥 in headline writing.

Don鈥檛 be long-winded. Short is sweet.

Write a headline that captures the essence of the story in as few words as possible. Then, shorten it. Really. Stop when the really short version conveys exactly what you want the reader to focus on, do, or take away. Look for low-hanging fruit to cut, like:

  • redundancy (鈥渋s currently,鈥 鈥渇uture plans,鈥 鈥渆nd result,鈥 鈥渇irst founded,鈥 鈥減ossible options鈥)
  • using phrases where a single word will do (鈥渋n the event of鈥 instead of 鈥渋f,鈥 鈥渋n the month of February鈥 instead of 鈥渋n February鈥)

Don鈥檛 undermine strong verbs.

鈥淭he Rainforest鈥 is a good title for third-grade report. But adults鈥 headlines need verbs, and strong ones are best. But here are three things to watch out for:

  • Avoid verbs that are more commonly used as nouns, because readers will likely read them as nouns and have to back up and re-read to get your meaning. 鈥淎ssociation projects budget surplus鈥 reads as a train of four nouns; it鈥檒l take work for your reader to figure out that 鈥減rojects鈥 isn鈥檛 a noun but a verb. I once wrote a really unfortunate headline that used 鈥渄ucks鈥 as a verb but was read as a noun.
  • A second verb may undermine your message. Adding 鈥渢ries to,鈥 鈥渋s meant to,鈥 鈥渉opes to,鈥 or 鈥渉elps to鈥 before your verb often suggests that you meant to do something but couldn鈥檛 quite pull it off. 鈥淐andidates try to win board seats,鈥 鈥淢eeting is meant to inform attendees,鈥 and 鈥淎ssociation helps improve quality of care鈥 all suggest their subjects fall short of the mark.
  • Question present participles. If you鈥檙e pairing a present participle (verb ending in -ing) with an auxiliary verb (or 鈥渉elping verb,鈥 depending on your age), you鈥檝e opted for a longer, weaker verb phrase. That means 鈥淎ssociation Conducts Membership Survey鈥 is better than 鈥淎ssociation Is Conducting Membership Survey.鈥 The shorter version ditches five characters and a space that weren鈥檛 contributing anything and eliminates a weaker verb while maintaining the exact same meaning.

Ambiguity stinks.

A headline that confuses people isn鈥檛 irresistible clickbait. It stokes annoyance and apathy about your story. Here are a few examples of phrases that would need to be clarified or replaced in headlines:

  • 鈥淢akes an impact鈥 and 鈥渁ffects鈥 don鈥檛 say if the effect is positive or negative. Verbs like 鈥渋mproves鈥 or 鈥渉arms鈥 are better.
  • 鈥淥utstanding work鈥 might be work that was completed really well or work that no one has done yet.
  • An 鈥渙utgoing board member鈥 might be one whose term has ended or one that loves to meet new people.

Don鈥檛 serve alphabet soup.

Associations, especially healthcare ones, are awash in acronyms. There鈥檚 a wall of capped letters for association names, healthcare roles, research project names, government medical programs, and more.

I鈥檒l give you this impossible scenario: If the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approve a group of registered nurses鈥 investigational device exemption for a product known by its acronym, HED-LINE III, you could certainly write this headline: CMS OK鈥檚 RNs鈥 HED-LINE III IDE.

You can write that, but you shouldn鈥檛. Please. Don鈥檛. That鈥檚 cruel to your readers, even medical professionals who expect to consume alphabet soup in journal articles.

Watch for structural repetition.

Just as words can be redundant, headline structure can be redundant. Take a look at the headlines as a whole contained in one publication you offer, whether it鈥檚 a magazine or an e-newsletter. How many of them follow this structure: Association Name (Verb) (object)? Association conducts election. Association holds meeting. Association seeks survey input. 鈥 Vary it up a little. In fact, make more of those headlines about your membership!

Another commonly repeated structure is what I call 鈥淐ute: Serious.鈥 Working with associations, I see a lot of headlines and poster titles structured with colons. There鈥檚 a short, cute headline, a colon, and an explanation. Think headlines like 鈥淲hose IV Line Is It Anyway?: Peripheral Line Insertion Responsibilities at One Major Medical Center鈥 or 鈥淢asks, and Gowns, and Sanitizer, Oh My!: Ensuring PPE Supplies Meet Demand.鈥 These are OK, but if every headline in a publication is structured this way, the repletion is noticeable and can be bothersome.

Don鈥檛 force it.

If a headline isn鈥檛 immediately obvious to you, don鈥檛 try to force yourself to come up with something brilliant. You can be too close to something you鈥檝e written to give it a good headline. In that situation, you can:

  • Give yourself a breather and try again after a break. When you return to your work and read it, the concise point should be obvious.
  • Hand it off to an editor or colleague who can look at it objectively and boil it down to the key concept that needs to be in the headline.

If you recognized some of your own habits in this to-don鈥檛 list, you鈥檙e not alone. It鈥檚 important to remember your headline isn鈥檛 alone either.

The newspapers I worked at often referred to 鈥減oints of entry鈥 for readers, the elements that would draw a reader into the newspaper, page, and story. The headline was a great point of entry, but if it didn鈥檛 do the job, a photo or a pull quote might be the point of entry for a reader. Even a story that fails to draw a reader with its own headline and elements might have a really clever blurb written about it in an e-mail or table of contents, prompting a reader to commit to reading it. Your headline isn鈥檛 the only point of entry, so do try your best but don鈥檛 beat yourself up if you don鈥檛 kill it every time. There will be more headlines, and every headline is a new opportunity to improve your writing chops and to engage with your members.

Julie Rogers is a senior content marketing and editorial manager in the Creative Media Services department at 免费下载抖阴.

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