7 Tips for Writing Headlines That Pop in a Journalist’s Inbox

Andrew Hindes

If you’ve taken time out of your busy day to read this article, it’s probably because the headline piqued your interest. Given the massive amounts of information published online every day, it’s no wonder we rely on headlines to help us figure out what we want to read—or think we should read—and what we can safely ignore.

That’s even more true for journalists, who not only have to stay on top of all the latest news, opinion and gossip pertaining to their beats, but also must sift through the literally hundreds of press releases, media alerts and e-mail pitches they receive every day. That’s why it’s so important that your press materials start with compelling, informative headlines (or, in the case of e-mail pitches, subject lines).

While there are some differences between journalistic headlines and PR headlines, there are many similarities. In both cases the writer has just a handful of words to persuade the reader to click on a link or continue reading. So to learn the secrets of writing great headlines, we turned to three seasoned newspaper editors—one of whom is now a successful PR practitioner. Here are their top tips for writing headlines that cut through the clutter and stand out in journalists’ inboxes.

  1. Be concise. Headlines need to convey as much essential information in as few words as possible. “Avoid fluff or padding,” says Lisa Horowitz, copy chief at the L.A. Weekly. “Don't put the entire story in the headline—one of the main goals of a headline is to entice the reader, without spelling out everything the story has to offer.” The journalist should know just enough from reading the headline to determine if the story might be of interest to them and their readers.

  2. Don’t overpromise. It’s tempting, in an effort to grab journalists’ attention, to exaggerate the content of a release (“New Cell Phone Cures the Common Cold!”). Avoid this. Editors and reporters are sensitive to hype and will not look favorably on a press release or pitch that doesn’t deliver on its headline. “It truly annoys me to see a tease that doesn't live up to its promise,” says Horowitz.

  3. Humor is good—but not at the expense of clarity. The best editorial copyeditors are adept at crafting witty headlines, like Variety’s famed “Stix Nix Hix Pix.” Monica Roman Gagnier, business copyeditor for the New York Post, recently paid homage to that classic with "Shock! Wall Street flocks to stock of mocked Crocs," which topped a piece about a rise in the share price of the maker of colorful plastic clogs, despite the fact that the shoes are often ridiculed. In addition to rhyming and alliteration, Gagnier notes that common ways to have fun with headlines include replacing words in popular song and movie titles and common expressions. But while journalists appreciate a clever turn of phrase as much, if not more, than most readers, PR headlines shouldn’t risk being obscure for the sake of joke or a play on words—no matter how ingenious. If you're not sure if you’re being too clever, says Horowitz, show the headline to some people who know nothing about the announcement and see if they understand it.

  4. Make sure the tone of the headline matches the story. “Use turns of phrase or cleverness only when it’s in keeping with the announcement—and the brand making the announcement,” says Jonathan Taylor, founder of entertainment corporate communications firm JT Media Works and a 25-year news veteran. For instance, a press release about a new soda might benefit from a fun, light headline. A release about a new cancer therapy? Not so much.

  5. Put your client’s name in the headline. I know, it seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s overlooked. According to Taylor, the main client—whether it’s an individual, a company or a brand—should always be named in the main headline, preferably in the first line. But beware of “top-heavy headlines,” he cautions. “When there are multiple companies, or news components, involved in an announcement, the temptation is to include them all in the headlines and sub-headlines. But there’s something off-putting about the first page of a release that’s all main deck, subhead, sub-subhead, etc.”

  6. Stick with the third person. Ad copy often addresses the reader directly, in the second person, like so: “Get ready for the biggest blockbuster of the summer!” or “You’ll Love XYZ’s New, Improved Formula!” Press releases, however, should always use the third person (and avoid subjective statements): “Box Office Analysts Predict Godzilla Will Be the Biggest Movie of the Summer,” “XYZ Announces New Formula That Actually Works.” Why use third person? Because the journalist is not intended to be the end user of the information you are conveying—or in most cases, the brand, product or service you are touting. Their readers are.

  7. When in doubt, change it. If you’re not sure if your headline is strong enough, it probably isn’t, says Horowitz. “You know a good (or better, a great) headline when you see it.” 

Andrew Hindes is president of The In-House Writer
, a Los Angeles-based PR and marketing copywriting firm that specializes in creating press materials for companies in a broad range of industries. He can be reached at [email protected].


2 responses to “7 Tips for Writing Headlines That Pop in a Journalist’s Inbox

  1. Thx for the great tips!!! It takes us back to the basics with a twist! Very helpful!!

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