Give Your Headlines the 'So What?' Test
by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

No element of a piece of writing is more important, yet perhaps less appreciated, than the humble headline. While headlines are most commonly associated with newspaper articles, they're also essential in display and classified advertising, posters, billboards, newsletters, interoffice memorandums, and even in e-mail messages.

Headlines serve an identical function in advertisements and editorial articles -- to attract readers by distilling the essence of the accompanying text in a few compelling words. Yet ad and editorial writers use sharply divergent approaches in writing headlines. People who create newsletters, product literature, informational brochures, Web pages and other written materials can learn from both approaches.

Newspaper reporters rarely write the headlines that introduce their articles; usually, "copy editors" craft headlines for articles just before a newspaper goes to press. In contrast, advertising copy writers typically do write their own headlines -- not at the conclusion of their work on the ad but rather as the starting point. They use the headline as the foundation upon which they develop the body text and concepts for illustrations.

The headline is created last in newspaper work because, ideally, journalists should not be influenced by preconceived notions but rather should let actual findings determine the outcome of the article. Advertisers, on the other hand, know that they have only a brief opportunity to captivate readers, for which they rely upon a concept embodied in a catchy headline and graphics.

Still, advertising copy writers and newspaper copy editors use the same yardstick in measuring the worthiness of any headline: the "So what?" test. If the intended reader's response to the headline is, "So what?" -- then you can be assured the accompanying text will not be read.

Here are some stereotypical headlines that are sure-fire formulas for inducing indifference in readers.

- Finance Commission Meets in Fresno (So what?)
- Business Expo 2003 (What about it?)
- Community Service Benefit (Yawn.)
- President's Message (Wake me later.)
- Transit Office Report (Zzzzzz.)

"Business Expo 2003," "Community Service Benefit," "President's Message" and "Transit Office Report" are "label heads" lacking verbs. A label on a pickle jar is more inviting because at least you can see what's inside. These label heads, however, fail to reveal anything about the article content. By contrast, consider these far more dynamic approaches:

- Alan Greenspan to Speak at Business Expo 2003
- Hit the Road: Earn Travel Vouchers for Community Service
- President's Message: Board Proposes Profit-sharing Plan
- Transit Office Funds Evening Parking Shuttle.

All four improved headlines contain action verbs -- the last two in present tense to impart a sense of immediacy. But a verb alone is not enough to guarantee vitality. Recall the first of the original headlines -- "Finance Commission Meets in Fresno." Without knowing what, if anything, the commission achieved, that headline is as useless as a screen door on a submarine. A headline declaring "Finance Commission Recommends 5 Percent Budget Cut" carries a far greater sense of urgency.

A headline must distill the essence of accompanying text concisely, accurately and invitingly. Headline writing requires concentration, imagination, wit -- and a vocabulary of short words. As headline size increases, the number of characters permissible decreases. News headline writers therefore favor "shorthand" terms to convey the meaning of longer words.

- Instead of "Reno Hardware Celebrates 20th Anniversary" (41 characters and spaces) a copy editor would be more inclined to write "Reno Hardware Marks 20th Year" (29 characters).

- Rather than "Union Repudiates Salary Proposal" (32 characters) a copy editor with a tight character count limit might write, "Union Nixes Wage Offer" (22 characters).

- Instead of "Three Locations Under Consideration by Planning Office for New Manufacturing Facility" (85 characters) a copy editor might write, "Planners Eye Sites for New Plant" (32 characters).

But "headlinese" terms such as "nix" and "eye" should be used sparingly and infrequently because they're not commonly heard in ordinary speech. You wouldn't expect Pamela to say, "John, let's eye those proposals later today." She'd more likely say "study," "review" or "examine."

Veteran headline writers intuitively delete articles (a, the), adjectives and adverbs, retaining only essential words. A good way to approach the task is to list key words that appear in the body text, then consult a thesaurus for succinct synonyms.

Sometimes efforts to compress text backfire in unintentionally funny ways -- particularly when using words that can function as either nouns or verbs, or with verbs that have multiple meanings -- as in these actually published examples:

- Eye Drops Off Shelf (intended to mean "Eye Drops REMOVED From Pharmacy Shelves"

- New Vaccine May Contain Rabies (CONTROL would have been a better verb)

- Man Shoots Neighbor With Machete (maybe he didn't know the machete was loaded)

- Milk Drinkers Are Turning to Powder

- Deer Kill 17,000 (intended to mean "Deer Kill TOTALS 17,000")

- Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

- Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

- L.A. Voters Approve Urban Renewal by Landslide

- Child's Stool Great for Use in Garden

- Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge

- Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

- Clinic Gives Poor Free Legal Help (perhaps the quality of the legal help should be improved).

Other than unintentionally cracking up readers, check to make certain that your headline conveys the most significant benefit of your item. To do that, visualize a reader in your target audience. Ask yourself if the headline you've written would pull that guy Ernie across the hall into your story or ad copy. If you have doubts, rework the head to make it more compelling, witty, newsy, challenging, stunning, commanding -- whatever magnet would work best to attract readers through the most economical use of characters.

Try to persuade your readers that they'll miss vitally important or valuable information if they don't read your ad text or news story -- for example, "Learn Eight Ways to Improve Your Health". You might try posing a provocative question that your text promises to answer -- "Are Tax Deductions Slipping Through Your Fingers?" Advertising headlines should impart a sense of immediacy to induce readers to respond now rather than later. A few more tips: Minimize punctuation, and avoid exclamation marks. If you must include quotation marks in a headline, use 'single' rather than "double" quotes to conserve space.

You can apply these guidelines not only in newsletters, advertising and news releases, but also in the subject lines of interoffice memos and e-mail messages. Memos and e-mail missives must compete for your readers' time and attention. Ernie learned the hard way that "Hi" is inadequate for an e-mail subject line after his intended recipient, Wanda, mistook it for junk e-mail and trashed it without reading it. Ernie now chooses thoughtful, specific subject lines, as in his most recent note to Wanda: "I'll be in Omaha next month." Of course, Wanda may think, "So what?"

YES! EditPros can enliven your advertising, newsletter and Web site content with compelling headlines and body text.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs Jeff March
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