Composing a headline is one of the most important tasks when writing for a newspaper. Why? Because a lot of people simply don't read past the headline. Many people skim the headlines to get their news and don't go any further. Others skim headline after headline looking for a story that they will want to read. For this reason, the headline has several tasks to do to get a reader's interest.
- Fill the space. A headline has to be exactly long enough to fill the available space above the story. It should not be noticeably shorter and it can not be longer, so every letter will count. You can play around with the font size if the headline you wrote is perfect but slightly too long or short. Most papers will have a policy about how big and small the headline fonts will go, and you will have to stay in (or near) that range.
- Throw out the pica pole. If you went to journalism school and learned all about the pica pole for measuring letter point sizes and were told that it was the only way to come up with a headline - forget it. No one uses a pica pole anymore, and in fact, it would slow you down considerably with the technology available in newsrooms now. The pica measurements were somewhat important to know before the advent of word processors and computers, but it is now a useless skill. These days you can size a headline right on the screen. If the headline doesn't fit, you can change the font there, too. Anything that doesn't fit can be reworded and resized quickly and easily right on the screen.
- Stay in present tense. No matter when the story took place, the headline can only be in present tense. This makes the headline relevant to the reader right now, rather than coming off as something that is already finished. Even if the story took place 100 years ago, the headline will still be in the present tense.
- Get some attention. The headline's job, after announcing what the story is about, is to grab the reader's attention. Use active words that not only describe the story, but make it sound like something vital. Instead of saying, "City council meets about murders," a more dynamic headline would be "City council demands police action." Words that suggest action being taken are always preferable. Pick the most shocking angle if there is one, or even use part of a quote contained in the story. If the headline doesn't grab the reader, the story won't be read.
Headline writing can be frustrating, especially when there are many dimensions to a story and only a couple of inches for a headline. But, an ordinary story dressed up with a good headline can get more readers to read something that they may not have otherwise.