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March 19, 2012 / Bonnie Paton

Writing Effective Headlines

In science writing it’s important to create good headlines. In our globalised, media-saturated world, we are constantly exposed to articles in newspapers, journals, magazines and on the web. Social networking sites such as facebook have even introduced apps that allow people to share articles they have read – science writing is everywhere. So how do you make your story stand out from all the rest? How do you write a headline that makes people stop and read your article?

Firstly, headlines need to grab people’s attention. Good headlines are short, simple, and direct. Key words are eye-catching, particularly if they relate to a current event, a topical or controversial issue or contain an emotive element. Interesting use of language such as wordplay, puns, and rhetorical questions is appealing, and can also attract a reader’s attention. It’s also important to consider the visual impact of a headline – they should be bold enough to stand out from the surrounding text.

Secondly, headlines must indicate the content of your story. They should encapsulate the main theme of the article or the major findings of the study. Also, consider how headlines can represent the validity of the research. For example, titles such as, “New research suggests…” or “Harvard study shows…” immediately give your writing credibility.

Furthermore, a headline’s tone should match both the house style of the publication and the style of the article that follows. For example, the articles on the New Scientist and ABC Science websites are aimed at non-scientists who have an interest in science. They are written in a colloquial style that is engaging and easy to read without containing too much information or scientific jargon.

However, all science writing, however informal, should try to represent science with integrity. In science journalism, it’s important to write an appealing headline without sacrificing an accurate portrayal of the topic.

Here are some articles with interesting headlines from the ABC and New Scientist websites:
Fukushima’s fate inspires nuclear safety rethink      
The Fukushima syndrome
Both articles discuss safety concerns after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I found the first headline more effective, as it sounded controversial and summarised the article’s content well. While the second article was well written, I thought the wording of the headline was misleading, the word “syndrome” suggesting health implications of the catastrophe.
Tiny dino had flashy feathers
I’m not interested in dinosaurs, but the rhyme and alliteration used in this catchy title really caught my attention. The article was detailed and scientific, but was written in an engaging style that matched the headline.
Exercise instantly boosts fat-busting genes

This headline sounded too good to be true! After reading the article, I thought it misrepresented the research. As only 8 men were studied, the research is quite unreliable. I felt the headline generalises and over-simplifies the results of the study. It makes an unrealistic and largely unsupported claim.

So what do you think makes a good headline?
Are there any on the ABC and New Scientist websites that appeal to you?

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10 Comments

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  1. osullivankate / Mar 19 2012 3:53 pm

    I think a good headline really does need to make me stop. I flip through the newspaper every morning whilst drinking my coffee and rarely stop and read articles. When I do they tend to have headlines that make me ask myself “I wonder what that’s about” or “How did that happen”.

    I think it’s intrinsically difficult to write a good science headline because you really do need to be representative of what the article really says, and no play too much into the preexisting misconceptions of the public.

  2. alistairsisson / Mar 20 2012 4:03 am

    I think you have provided a good dissection of the characteristics of an effective headline. However, I don’t necessarily agree that a headline has to be totally representative of what the article is stating, as you and osullivankate suggest. I think that so long as the headline alludes to the the issues presented in the body of text of the article, representation should be subordinate to a wording that inspires interest in the article, allowing the article to elaborate on what is behind the headline because it is actually being read.

    • bonnyp / Mar 20 2012 1:14 pm

      Headlines really do need to make people stop and read the article instead of skipping right past it. So I agree that sparking the interest of readers should be the primary goal of a headline, and scientific representation of the content should be a secondary concern – as you said alistairsisson, you can always fill that in once people actually stop to read the content of the article.

      So in that sense I think it’s okay for a headline to simply allude to the topic of the article if it will make people stop and read it, but I think that as osullivankate mentioned it is important that the that the title doesn’t become scientifically misleading just for the sake of sensationalist, media-friendly journalism.

    • lodoubt / Mar 22 2012 5:23 am

      Sensationalism isn’t the only risk. If your headline is sufficiently misleading relative to the article contents your readers will feel outright betrayed, or tricked. And that will have a long term impact on your publication.

  3. n20939715 / Mar 21 2012 1:56 pm

    It definitely can be a fine line between an inappropriate headline and an eye-catching one. Personally, I don’t like it when I’ve stopped to read an article because the headline was so engaging, only to find out that the article is not nearly as engaging or even about what I thought the title suggested. So I don’t think the truth should be extended just to get a few extra readers. Although, I can also appreciate how the author is trying to get people to stop and take a second look but I think this should be done without an over-use of exaggeration.

    I agree with what bonnyp said about the title shouldn’t be scientifically misleading as if the headline is, couldn’t that contribute to why science is sometimes misunderstood by non-scientists?

  4. shannonjane93 / Mar 22 2012 3:50 pm

    I agree with the article, and applaud your writing style, very engaging. To join the discussion, I prefer when headlines sum up the contents of the article in a catchy way, not broadcasting something they’re not. If I begin reading and find out it’s not about what was implied, then I stop reading and flick onto another page. There’s a line between being clever with the contents of the article and out right lying. Cleverness, wit and word plays are better ways to entice a reader!

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21617-astrophile-square-galaxy-is-a-rebel.html
    I loved this one, I just had to read it despite not being particularly interested in astronomy.

  5. mmaideni / Mar 22 2012 4:26 pm

    Reading this article gives hints which many science writers would want to portray but miss the point. Sometimes if you look at the story the headline would sound catchy but then how long would the content hold the reader? The credibilty of source also as the writer of post has rightly said, but a watchful eye should also be cast on the quantity of the summary, for example loging in a website to check emails then I read the headiline of the story I would want to digress abit but if its too long I postpone and not come back again to read. Sometimes use of the link while it is good fo validation make sure the link is as good as your headline as elaborated in your post or even better, “just to hear from horse’s mouth.”

    All in all this is fantastic guidance for a good science headline. I am one of your customer.

  6. noelynn / Mar 22 2012 10:48 pm

    I guess there’s no difference to headlines criteria in the media both written and read news. But like you simply spelt out, it should be short and relates to the content of the whole story.

    The provoking questions you posed, challenges one to find a better way to advice someone on writing an headline. I like the way you simply addressed the issue of headline and substantiating it all with the examples and the helpful links.

    Generally, I like the post not only because it was logically presented, but also I acknowledged the importance of raising a good headline for your writing.

  7. n20939715 / Mar 23 2012 3:31 am

    I think the comparison between the two headlines about the Fukushima articles was very well done. It provided a good comparison of the different ways authors can summarise their articles into a few words and how effective may be. I agree with what ‘bonnyp’ said about the headlines and that “Fukushima’s fate inspires nuclear safety rethink” is far more effective at portraying the message and even more engaging.
    I think the title of the article that ‘shannonjane93’ posted was a great example. It made the story incredibly relatable in just a few words and also interesting and simple enough for anyone to understand.

  8. tahliajade / Mar 30 2012 6:07 am

    To me, a good headlines are the ones that will, like osullivankate said, shock me into reading the article that follows. I like humor in headlines and think that making light of something can make the article feel more enjoyable to read. Obviously though, there is a line between what should be joked about and what is truly off-limits when it comes to humor.

    As far as covering exactly what is in the article, sometimes it is just too hard to do so and write a captivating headline. I, as a reader, would prefer a slightly off-base title that made me giggle or shocked me than one that just merely states exactly what is written below.

    Also, titles that try to sum up the entire contents of the article in a few words, could turn away just as many readers as one that doesn’t capture the article’s contents by giving away all of their information in a few words. A headline needs to entice a reader to keep reading, not just to get the gist of what is being said so they can move on to read something else.

    Nice find, shannonjane93…quite a funny headline…might go and read that one myself 🙂

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