HEADLINE AND CAPTION WRITING: WHEN AND WHEN NOT TO BREAK
Farley 124, 1:05 - 1:50 p.m
Captions and headlines seem as if they should be easy to write, but often they are not.
These two elements are major deciding factors for readership. Learn how to make yours
better. Andrew Scott and Elizabeth Pearson, SPJ
Introduce ourselves and briefly talk about the importance of the impact in headlines and
Topic # 1: Types of Headlines
An Indirect Headline
A News Headline
How to Headline
Reason Why Headline
Topic # 2: Rules for Headlines
A ―capital‖ idea
To the left, to the left
Present tense, please
Punctuation normal — mostly
―And‖ more punctuation
Even more on punctuation
Speaking of ambiguity and the double entendre
"And" more on the comma
Who (and what) is whom (or what)?
Don‘t be cute, unless cute is called for
―Polly want a cracker?‖
More things to avoid
No ―a‖ or ―and‖ or ―the‖?
Watch out for ambiguity and the double entendre
Finally, the ―doo-dah‖ rule
Students will be given two stories to read through and create their own headlines.
Afterwards we‘ll evaluate and give positive critiques.
Caption Writing Handout: (to cover remaining time)
Types of Headlines:
Direct Headlines go straight to the heart of the matter, without any attempt at
cleverness. Bly gives the example of Pure Silk Blouses – 30 Percent Off as a
headline that states the selling proposition directly. A direct blog post title might
read Free SEO E-book.
An Indirect Headline takes a more subtle approach. It uses curiosity to raise a
question in the reader‘s mind, which the body copy answers. Often a double
meaning is utilized, which is useful online. An article might have the headline
Fresh Bait Works Best and yet have nothing to do with fishing, because it‘s
actually about writing timely content that acts as link bait.
A News Headline is pretty self-explanatory, as long as the news itself is actually,
well… news. A product announcement, an improved version, or even a content
scoop can be the basis of a compelling news headline. Think Introducing Flickr
2.0 or My Exclusive Interview With Steve Jobs.
The How to Headline is everywhere, online and off, for one reason only – it
works like a charm. Bly says that ―Many advertising writers claim if you begin
with the words how to, you can‘t write a bad headline.‖
A Question Headline must do more than simply ask a question, it must be a
question that, according to Bly, the reader can empathize with or would like to see
answered. He gives this example from Psychology Today: Do You Close the
Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home? Another example
used way too much in Internet marketing guru-ville is Who Else Wants to Get
The Command Headline boldly tells the prospect what he needs to do, such as
Exxon‘s old Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign. Bly indicates that the first
word should be a strong verb demanding action, such as Subscribe to the DM
Another effective technique is called the Reason Why Headline. Your body text
consists of a numbered list of product features or tips, which you then incorporate
into the headline, such as Two Hundred Reasons Why Open Source Software
Beats Microsoft. It‘s not even necessary to include the words ―reasons why.‖
This technique is actually the underlying strategy behind the ubiquitous blogger
―list‖ posts, such as 8 Ways to Build Blog Traffic.
Finally, we have the Testimonial Headline, which is highly effective because it
presents outside proof that you offer great value. This entails taking what
someone else has said about you, your product or service, and using their actual
words in your headline. Quotation marks let the reader know that they are reading
a testimonial, which will continue in the body copy. An example might be ―I
Read Copyblogger First Thing Each Morning,‖ admits Angelina Jolie.
Rules for Headlines:
Use the active voice: Effective headlines usually involve logical sentence structure, active voice
and strong present-tense verbs. They do not include ―headlinese.‖ As with any good writing, good
headlines are driven by good verbs.
A ―capital‖ idea: The first word in the head should be capitalized as should all proper nouns.
Most headline words appear in lower-case letters. Do not capitalize every word. (Some
publications do capitalize the first letter of every word; the Kansan and most other publications
do not.) In most cases, do capitalize the first word after a colon. (In some cases, when only one
word follows the colon, the word would not be capitalized. Use your best judgment.)
Number, please: Numbers often go against AP style in headlines. For example, you may start
a sentence with a number and, even though that number is below 10, you do not have to spell it
3 die in crash
However, whenever possible, follow AP and Kansan style rules.
To the left: Write all headlines flush left unless told otherwise.
It’s XXX-rated? Fill each line of the head within two units of the letter ―x‖ in lower case.
(We‘ll talk about this in class). Do not have one line of a multi-line head too short. Exceptions
can be made on some headlines with narrow specifications (such as one-column heds). Note: The
two-―x‖ rule for this class and the Kansan; it is not a rule that is universally followed. Some
publications allow greater leeway; most do not, some requiring you to come even closer.
Nevertheless, the two-―x‖ rule is a good one to follow.)
Lincoln, Douglas to debate
at new KU Dole Centerxxx (not acceptable — almost 3 x's short)
Lincoln, Douglas to debate
at KU's new Dole Centerxx (OK — fewer than two x‘s short)
debate todayxxx (acceptable in narrow, multi-line headlines)
at Dole Center
(JOKE: Only in a threesome!)
Present tense, please: Use present tense for immediate past information, past tense for past
perfect, and future tense for coming events.
Punctuation normal — mostly: Headline punctuation is normal with two significant
exceptions: Use periods for abbreviations only, and use single quotes where you would use
double quotes in a story.
Example (single quotes):
Lincoln: ‗The war has begun‘
Moreover, note the use of the colon (substituting for the word ―said‖). The colon can be used,
sparingly, for introducing both a direct quote and a paraphrase. (See ―He said, she said‖ below.)
Lincoln: War inevitable; victory essential
The semicolon (above) is used normally: separating two thoughts of equal weight.
Lincoln says war inevitable; Davis agrees
―And‖ more punctuation: The comma, in addition to its normal use, can take on the work of
the word ―and.‖ On rare occasions, the comma also can indicate the word ―but‖ (but, if used that
way, be very, very careful, ensuring that the reader has a clear understanding that‘s what the
comma means. The semi-colon is better for the ―but.‖ Even better is to use the word ―but.‖)
Lincoln offers compromise, Davis declines (awkward)
Lincoln offers compromise; Davis declines (better)
Lincoln offers an ‗out,‘ but Davis declines (best)
Even more on punctuation: In multi-line headlines, strive to keep most punctuation, except
hyphens and dashes, at the end of lines. Don't use a hyphen at the end of a line. With few
exceptions, any semi-colon should only be used at the end of a line in a multi-line headline.
Example #1 (good):
Clinton says there was no affair,
urges witness ‗to tell the truth‘
Example #2 (not acceptable):
Clinton says no affair, that (not acceptable;
witness should ‗tell the truth‘ awkward break)
Example #6 (horrible):
Clinton: No affair; Starr: His probe (horrible; see
proves it happened more than once explanation below)
The breaks in the ―bad‖ examples above make it hard for the reader. Make ―natural‖
breaks — breaks where a slight pause by the reader is OK and natural (as in the first example).
there's a bad break, but there's also just too much punctuation going on. (The same for Example
#6). Keep it simple. Use as little punctuation as possible in headlines.
Speaking of ambiguity and the double entendre:
The following is a famous headline.Not only does it have a double entendre, but the bad break at the end
of the first line contributes to the problem. Street sales for the newspaper were extraordinary that day; the
edition sold out in a remarkably short time. Read the head and you‘ll see why:
Textron Inc. Makes Offer
To Screw Co. Stockholders
"And" more on the comma: While a comma can be used in the place of the word ―and,‖ you
should be careful and avoid the practice when possible — and especially in the nominative
portion of the headline. Don‘t overuse.
Clinton, Gore, Dole,
Kemp to meet, debate
Who (and what) is whom (or what)? Make it clear: Don't use proper names in headlines
unless the name is well-known enough to be recognized immediately. The same is true for
Jones to fill Who's Jones? .
vacancy on End in prepositon? OK in narrow multi-line heads.
on K.C. radio
Abbreviations: Many abbreviations (as with ―K.C.‖ in the above headline) that are not
acceptable in stories are acceptable in headlines. But be careful. If you have any doubts, ask.
Everyone would know that ―K.C.‖ is Kansas City, Mo., or the Kansas City metro area in the
above example. If it were Kansas City, Kan., you‘d have to rewrite the headline and avoid the
Avoid all acronyms or abbreviations that are not immediately recognizable by the reader. For
example, ―NFL‖ would be OK; ―LCC‖ for Lawrence City Commission would not be. When in
doubt, spell it out.
Don’t be cute, unless cute is called for: Don't yield to the temptation to write cute headlines
or to use faddish or commercial slogans unless doing so fits especially well with the content and
tone of the story.
―Polly want a cracker?‖ Don't just parrot (Repeat) the lead of the story, and try to avoid
stealing the reporter's thunder on a feature story. A good headline captures the essence of the
story without pillaging — and, therefore, dulling — the writer's punch.
More things to avoid: Do not editorialize, exaggerate, generalize or use long words. Keep it
simple and direct.
No ―a‖ or ―and‖ or ―the‖? Avoid the use of the articles a, and, and the unless they are needed
for clarity. (Otherwise, their use generally is considered padding.)
Finally, the ―doo-dah‖ rule: Headlines, like poetry and songs, should have a rhythm about
them. An old trick to see if a headline ―sings‖ is to apply the what's called the ―doo-dah‖ rule.
After each line of the headline, simply say ―doo-dah‖ to see if it ―sings‖ (sounds good to the ear).
City's singers ―doo-dah‖
in good tune ―doo-dah‖
Headline Practice: (Write a headline for this article??)
All eyes on Ackbar (original, remove on student copy)
It started as a joke and became a movement.
Six days before the Ole Miss student body was called to vote on whether to accept the responsibility of
developing a new mascot, four students came together to fill a void for those who were ready to lay
Colonel Reb to rest.
Drawing comedic inspiration from a squid-like Star Wars character, Tyler Craft, Matthew Henry, Joseph
Katool and Ben McMurtray launched the Ole Miss Rebel Alliance and unwittingly introduced Admiral
Ackbar as a potential mascot candidate.
It was a ridiculous idea. That‘s why they loved it.
A Web site was created featuring the now-viral image of Ackbar dressed in a red hat and jacket similar to
that of his predecessor. An official Facebook group and Twitter feed soon followed.
―We started this as sort of a fun thing,‖ Craft said. ―We did it with satire, fun and a little comedy. Admiral
Ackbar represented the people who wanted to move forward, which apparently was a good portion of the
Ole Miss students got the joke, and through parody emerged another contender in the battle for a new
On one side stood the Colonel Reb Foundation, developed shortly after the former mascot‘s removal in
2003, who launched a widespread advertising campaign in the days leading up to the vote encouraging
students to oppose creating a new mascot.
McMurtray said it was obvious there was no organization pushing for the ‗yes‘ vote.
―No independent organizations really voiced their support (for a new mascot), so that was our goal - to try
to be that organization,‖ McMurtray said.
Those looking for an alternative to the colonel‘s salvation suddenly had a common, albeit laughable,
And rally they did. More than 2,500 students voted in favor of finalizing the university‘s seven-year
disassociation with its former mascot.
Suddenly, four jokesters found themselves at the forefront of not only a campus movement, but a national
media blitz - one that removed focus from a university clinging to images representative of its divisive past
to one where students were ready to move on.
It took seven days for the organization to evolve from a novelty piece circulating around the SEC blog
circuit to a national story featured on the Web sites of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Washington
Post and MSNBC, as well as entertainment site TMZ.com.
The growing buzz boosted the Ole Miss Rebel Alliance to become Google‘s sixth most searched term
Wednesday. Although Craft described the movement as something he hoped would help unite the Ole
Miss campus through something humorous, he and the group‘s founders now realize the media‘s perception
has an entire nation asking whether Ole Miss would attempt to put a Star Wars character on the sidelines.
Headline Practice: (Write a headline for this article??)
Unions Make Strides as They Attack Banks (original, remove on student copy)
When the city of Los Angeles started looking into its complex financial contracts with banks earlier this
year, some council members turned to an unusual corner for financial advice: labor unions.
Turns out that union leaders had amassed an armory of research on derivatives, mortgage foreclosures and
even Wall Street pay as part of their effort to hold bankers accountable for the economic pain they helped
cause in Los Angeles and across the country.
Unions have criticized Wall Street before. But their attacks have taken on a new shape, both in ferocity and
style, over the last 18 months, ever since the federal government doled out billions of dollars in bank
Why? Labor leaders say the fortunes of banks and unions are linked more than people realize. Wall Street
manages union pension portfolios worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Much of that is invested in
financial institutions, giving unions a loud voice as shareholders.
Then there are all the unionized workers whose fates are indirectly shaped by the world of high finance.
The jobs of hundreds of thousands of union members, like police officers and teachers, have been
threatened by municipal budget cuts, made worse in some cases by exotic investments gone bad.
More abstractly, union leaders are framing their fight against Wall Street as a symbolic one, underscoring
America‘s large disparities in wealth and wages.
―Many unions see that they need to be responsible for not just members‘ needs at the bargaining table, but
other hardships in their lives, like foreclosures and high mortgage costs,‖ said Peter Dreier, a political
science professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Unions are holding up many of their own members as victims of the banks‘ bad bets, like subprime
mortgages, and are providing a steady stream of research in an effort to demystify the exotic financial
products that they say are harming dozens of cities. Unions have also helped underwrite Americans for
Financial Reform, a prominent group pushing for further bank regulation.
Labor leaders were among the first to call for the resignation of Bank of America‘s chief executive, who
did retire months later. Unions issued a scathing report on bank bonuses, months before the federal pay czar
presented his findings, and they criticized Goldman Sachs‘s bonus pool just before the bank said its chief
would receive only stock.
Hot Tips for Writing Photo Captions
By Kenneth Irby (More articles by this author)
Visual Journalism Group Leader/Diversity Director
Photo captions are an integral part of newspaper storytelling, but they are
often the most underdeveloped element in the mix of words, graphics, and
photographs in a newspaper. A poorly executed caption can destroy the
message of a photo or the story package of which it is part. The reader/viewer
expects nothing less than accurate, complete, and informative information,
including captions. Here are a few suggestions to follow when writing captions.
• Check the facts. Be accurate!
• Avoid stating the obvious. "Dennis Rodman smiles as he kicks a broadcast photographer in the groin."
• Always identify the main people in the photograph.
• Don't let cutlines recapitulate information in the head or deck or summary.
• Avoid making judgments. "An unhappy citizen watches the protest..." Can you be sure that he is
unhappy? Or is he hurting. Or just not photogenic. If you must be judgmental, be sure you seek the truth.
• Don't assume. Ask questions in your effort to inform and be specific. Be willing to contact and include the
• Avoid using terms like "is shown, is pictured, and looks on."
• If the photograph is a historic or file photo, include the date that it was taken. Mayor David Dinkins,
• A photograph captures a moment in time. Whenever possible, use present tense. This will creates a sense
of immediacy and impact.
• Don't try to be humorous when the picture is not.
• Descriptions are very helpful for viewer. The person dressed "in black," "holding the water hose," "sulky
from chagrin," or "standing to the left of the sofa, center" are helpful identifying factors. (Photographers
must ferret out this kind of material.)
• Be willing to allow for longer captions when more information will help the reader/viewer understand the
story and situation.
• Use commas to set off directions from the captions to the picture. "Kachira Irby, above,..."or "Kennetra
Irby, upper left..."
• Quotes can be an effective device, be willing to use them when they work.
• Conversational language works best. Don't use clichés. Write the caption as if you're telling a family
member a story.