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How to write smokin’ hot headlines

A headline is arguably the most important part of an article. After all, it’s the first thing readers see when they pick up your piece. And in an era of short attention spans, the headline has to hook readers and make them want to jump into the first paragraph.

An attention-grabbing headline can also be the hardest thing to write. How do you use just a handful of words to capture readers so they can enjoy the hard work you put into your story?

Here are five proven headline writing methods that can help you find just the right words while avoiding a basketful of crumpled paper. Examples from my own published work follow each method:

  1. Borrow from or put a creative twist on a common phrase

An ordinary phrase often works well when applied to your story topic in a clever way.

  • “High Water Mark” – A college alum turned professional sailor wins several world-class yacht races.
  • “Meet the New Boss” – Young college alumni become the new generation of successful entrepreneurs.
  • “No Place like Dome” – A university breaks ground on a new indoor sports practice facility.
  1. Try your luck with alliteration

Remember alliteration from your college English poetry class? The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjoining or closely connected words can create a nice rhythmic headline.

  • “A Leonardo in Latex” – An artist paints colorful wall murals in a patient area of a cancer hospital.
  • “Common Cancer Culprits” – Certain viruses can lead to liver and cervical cancers.
  • “Zach’s Got Game” – A college student launches a non-profit that holds video game tournaments to raise funds for charity. (This example also borrows from a common phrase.)
  1. Why not write a headline in the form of a question?

Sometimes presenting a thought-provoking question can be a good entrée for your story.

  • “Is the Printed Book Dead?” – New technologies raise questions about how we define the word “book.”
  • “Is Gluten-Free the Way to Be?” – Are gluten-free diets just a health fad?
  • “Exercising During Cancer Treatment? Yes You Can!” – Many patients with cancer can continue exercising with physician approval.
  1. Use an active verb that appeals to the senses.

If you can make readers see, touch, hear, smell or taste what follows in your story, you’ve got them hooked.

  • “Cracking Cancer’s Code” – Cancer research at the molecular level helps doctors better identify gene mutations and make a diagnosis.
  • “Tackling His Toughest Challenge” – A Detroit Lions employee fights stage IV pancreatic cancer.
  • “Revving its Research Engine” – An advanced vehicle systems institute expands its multidisciplinary research opportunities. (All three examples also use alliteration.)
  1. Try a short narrative lead-in.

This isn’t a technique I use often, since space is usually limited. But this method can work well when the headline itself makes an important statement.

  • “When new patients arrive at Karmanos for treatment, student volunteers help them feel comfortable and relaxed. It’s the Center’s way of… “Providing a Personal Touch” – Youthful volunteers ease patients into the hospital environment.

The next time you have trouble thinking of a headline for an article, see if one of the five methods above helps spark your creativity.

Do you use other strategies to write killer headlines? Let us know in the comments section below.

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