Display Copy Tricks & Tips

That sigh of relief when an article is done can easily morph into a case of writer’s block when it’s time to come up with a headline. So a lot of people just throw something together, forgetting to put the same care and effort into headlines, subheads and pull quotes that they do when crafting a story. But readers use those elements to decide whether they will actually take the time to read the full story.

So how do you fashion a headline and subhead that draws the reader in? How do you pull out ideas or quotes from an article that make the person skimming through pages stop and read every word?

Relevance: A good headline needs to quickly inform the reader what they will find in the article. Get too clever or insiderish and you lose them. Start by writing a subhead – one sentence that summarizes the main point of the article. This helps you come up with a corresponding phrase that will work as a headline. Parthenon editors use this trick all the time when they’re stuck. Just recently I was wracking my brain to find the right headline for a story about the work involved in moving the enormous turbines used to harness wind power. My summary subhead: Calculating weights, dimensions and traffic in order to transport huge windmill parts. That one sentence made me think that calculations are measurements, and eventually I had the headline: Extreme Measures.

Attitude: Striking the right tone is just as important as finding the right words. A serious topic should not have a lighthearted pun as its headline. In fact, puns can be dangerous all the way around. Try too hard to be clever and you will lose clarity. You may get the joke because you know the story, but you may leave potential readers scratching their heads and turning the page.

Intrigue: Pulling a phrase or a quote from the story and highlighting it in large type (often called a call-out), is your chance to let the reader sample the story. If they like the sample, they may well dig in to the main course. Don’t waste that opportunity by putting in a boilerplate quote. Use it to tease the story, make them want to know more. But do not, under any circumstances, use your opening or closing sentence as a pull quote. One ruins your set-up and the other spoils the end of the story.

Try this: Write the headline and subhead before you write the story. It gets the job out of the way, and gives you a framework for your article right from the start.