Writing headlines for articles is probably the hardest, and yet most important, parts of any journalist’s job. However, it is a skill that takes time to perfect.
Hannah Rock, chief night editor at The Times, is the final checkpoint for the stories which make the morning splash. She makes sure the headlines stand up, make sense and encourage the reader to dive into the story.
Rock offers nine tips for crafting a headline fit for The Times:
Capture the key message
Step one for creating a headline is picking a line from the story that jumps out and best encapsulates the article.
"This is not simply a case of repeating the intro. It’s really about choosing a line that speaks to the essence of the story while also drawing the reader in, in just a few short words," she said.
The Times avoids using words and phrases dubbed ‘tabloidese’ - such as 'slam', 'Brit' and 'cop' - words you would typically see in a tabloid paper. This is for its tone and style, but also, as is the case with 'plot', also not to appear subjective.
"As one senior editor here said, 'plot' is simply a plan of which the writer disapproves. We believe we serve our readers best by keeping it quite straight, by avoiding hyperbole."
Inject some life
She also avoids words like 'government', 'plan' and 'scheme' at the start of headlines as they can become dull easily. Instead, using a colourful word or elegant turn of phrase can lift a headline.
For writing for print, this is only the start, as visual appearance is also a big consideration. Mixing shorter and longer words, avoiding too much punctuation and acronyms, and ensuring common phrases are not split over two lines are important in achieving a strong headline.
Gear it for online
Rock explained, however, that some of the rules for print headlines have become irrelevant in the digital age when writing web headlines.
"There are no space restrictions, responsive pages mean that trying to get a nice shape for your headline is a fool’s errand and, of course, we have SEO to consider."
Use puns appropriately
Some of the most memorable headlines can revolve around a clever pun, but for The Times, its use is limited and dependent on the story, as to not make light of a serious article.
"I think it could be said sub-editors prefer puns more than readers."
Practice makes perfect
There are a lot of resources out there to help with constructing a headline, but nothing compares to the experience of chipping away at a headline until it clicks into place.
"So much of it is instinctive, drilled in from years of doing it. It’s going to be tricky for anyone not working at a newsroom to read a book and be able to write a good headline.
"We’ve got sub-editors here with 30 years experience and they still think they’re terrible headline writers. They’re not, but there’s always room for improvement."
Trust your instincts
Do not underestimate your gut reaction. If something seems confusing, do not pass it off as your own shortcoming. Recognise it as something that could trip up your readers as well.
"If you read a headline and you misread it the first time, that probably means other people are going to."
Read it out loud
Reading the headline repeatedly out load and to colleagues is also important in avoiding a reporter’s worst nightmare: seeing their headline on Twitter and realising you have got it all wrong.
Before hitting 'publish', always get a quick second opinion if you are unsure.
Use your team mates
On that note, do not be put off by the competitive of a newsroom. After all, best results come from bouncing ideas off colleagues until the end result is right.
"Some of the best headlines have been written with five sub-editors crowded around the desk. We’re all pulling in one direction with one deadline," she concluded.
Save the date: our Newsrewired conference takes place on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets