Writing for the web is different: Headline needs to work out of context

A headline needs to be self-explanatory so that readers can “get the point” without reading the article or synopsis. This guideline is especially important if the article will be posted or shared on the web.

Nowadays a headline may appear on Google search results list, in RSS feeds, or be shared on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter; one thing in common is that the headline usually appears by itself – that is, without the associated article.

This means that when writing headline, we need to write in a way that the headline, by itself, can tell the gist of the article. I want to use as an illustration a recent article carried by the local weekly newspaper in my area, and here’s a screenshot of the “front page” section of the paper’s accompanying website:


While most headlines are self-explanatory, the second headline, “So. Bruns. council gets a new point of view,” is not informative – I don’t know what that article actually talks about and, more importantly, I didn’t feel any desire to click on the link.

As I read the actual article, the lead reads, “South Brunswick Township started off the new year by swearing in its newest council member, Josephine Hochman.” So the “new point of view” actually refers to that of a new council member.

Witty headlines such as this one work well on paper, but don’t work well on the web – they are not informational and won’t entice click-throughs. So, to be informational, the headline could be re-written as “So. Bruns. council swears in newest member.”

But, wait, upon reading the whole article, buried deeper in the story, I read that this newest member, Josephine Hochman, is the only woman on council, and no woman has served on the council since 2009.

Say, this is the actual “news” and should be written into the headline. So the headline could be written as “So. Bruns. council swears in first woman member in 4 years.” And the whole article ought to be rewritten focusing on this newsworthy angle.

As a final note, the headline, “So. Bruns. council gets a new point of view,” is not quite accurate: in the article, the new council member is not being quoted as saying anything “new” or different or noteworthy – she is basically saying what she will be doing and how excited she is about her new job. Moreover, the headline may mislead readers into thinking that the council itself, as a whole, is having a “new point of view” on an issue.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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One Response to Writing for the web is different: Headline needs to work out of context

  1. Pingback: Useful tips for online writing | Ivana Cvetkovic

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