Effective Headlines

Writing Headlines for USC News

Writing compelling and clickable headlines is a must for all digital media content.

USC News is a news-driven website, but our focus is not on breaking news. We want to showcase editorial content that is concise but still explanatory and contextualized. Headlines should be:

1. Explanatory

Since we are not breaking news, we should avoid “here’s what just happened” headlines whenever possible. The piece might be about an event (a new school/program launching, a presidential initiative), a faculty profile or research findings, but news should be packaged as an explanation, not simply a summary. Headlines should reflect the larger potential/ implication/benefit/ importance of USC’s work.

Example: USC researchers attend humanitarian summit
Better: USC researchers and global leaders convene to prevent future genocides

Example: Latin American business leaders are welcomed to campus
Better: Visiting business leaders strengthen USC-Mexico ties

Example: Study finds that proper stem cell function requires hydrogen sulfide
Better: Stem cell research findings may lead to osteoporosis treatment

2. Compelling

Headlines need to draw in readers. Maximize interest by using one (or a mix) of the following tricks in the headline:

Pique curiosity by posing a question or puzzle.

  • Can 3-D avatars one day pass as human?
  • Intestinal cells that make insulin? It could be possible one day

Create surprise with an unusual idea or theory.

  • Meat and cheese may be as unhealthy as cigarettes
  • The surprising link between maternal stress and child obesity

Present a conflict or social issue so users read further to see the solution:

  • Social worker pinpoints cause of racial bias in health care
  • Job prospects looking rosier for 2014 grads after commencement

3. Concise

Avoid generalities and vagueness in headlines. Puns and wordplay work best in print or longform features, not web articles. Ask yourself if the headline would still be understandable if seen out of context.

Review a headline to make sure each word is necessary and delete any that aren’t. Can you combine titles or simply do away with names? Can the verb do the work of describing why the person is important? Can you help quantify information using numbers?

Example: Hilda Blanco shines national spotlight on climate change
Better: Policy expert shows the devastating impact of climate change

Example:  USC study finds ways to prevent costly and unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions
Better: USC study uncovers strategy to save $70 million in health care costs

Further reading:

Poynter guide to writing better headlines

Nielsen research about BBC News headlines

Constant Contact’s headline basics for brand communication