Tag Archives: Writing tips

9 Tips for Writing an Effective Online Headline

Writing headlines for an online audience poses different challenges than print. Here are 10 tips to help you write an effective headline for the web.

Writing headlines for an online audience poses different challenges than print.
Here are nine tips to help you write an effective headline for the web.

You spent hours laboring over a blog post.  You did your research and fussed over sentences until they were just right. The only thing standing between you and your next task is a headline.

You take a few seconds, jot down the first thing that comes to mind, and move on.

Don’t do that.

You’re cheating yourself out of more readers by not applying the same effort to your headline, as you did to the rest of your piece.

The headline is the first – and sometimes only — thing your audience sees before deciding to open your blog post.  It needs to be worthy of being clicked on.

During a Web Headlines seminar by the Poynter Institute, John Schlander, the Tampa Bay Times’ digital general manager, shared an easy-to-remember approach to online headline writing.

Your headline has three goals, he said. If it captures deeper meaning, reader interest and search value, you’re in good shape.

These nine tips will help you achieve those goals.

1. Keep it short. Although bloggers, online journalists, and other writers are not limited by a newspaper’s narrow columns, you do need to consider the web’s equivalents: Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) and social media.

After Google’s most-recent SERP redesign, Moz released new guidelines for page title/headline length.  There’s no magic number due to the varying widths of letters on Google. However, under the new design, Moz says 55 characters is a safe bet before your headline gets cut off in SERPs.

If your headline is close to or more than 55 characters (including spaces), make sure the most important information is near the front.

2. Don’t aim for cute.  I LOVE puns, so it pains me to say they’re better left out of your online headline.  Your headline has to live on its own in search results, as a tweet, or in a mobile news reader. You don’t have the luxury of a photo or subhead on the newspaper’s front page to explain “Scrape Me Up Before You Go Slow.”

If you saw that in your search results, you wouldn’t know the article was referring to a car accident involving George Michael.  Even if you can decipher the article’s topic from a pun, wordplay takes up room you don’t have. Clear, descriptive language that explains what the article is about would be more useful.

3. Keep your sights on why.  The who, what, when, and where of your story are very important to the headline, but you also need to demonstrate why your audience should care to click on it.  Is there an emotion this story taps into? What is the deeper meaning or impact this news has on your audience and its community? Ask yourself what would make you click on your own headline.

4. Understand your audience through research. Keyword research and website analytics give us insight into our target audiences’ behaviors. We don’t have to guess (as much) about what our audience will or won’t respond to.  By studying the different topics your audience is interested in, the words they use to search for those topics, and the headline triggers they respond to (numbers and calls to action are a good place to start), you can craft a headline that’s found, clicked, and shared.

5. Don’t be tone deaf. Once you’ve identified the ‘why’ of your story, you must consider the topic’s tone. Is it serious, informal, sentimental, or irreverent? Make sure that’s reflected in your headline.  If, like me, you struggle with capturing a funny tone, comedian Michele Wojciechowski offers advice on adding humor to your writing. Cultural differences also should be considered when determining what’s acceptable.

6. Be consistent with your site’s voice. In addition to recognizing the appropriate tone for your story’s topic, you need to understand and be consistent with your site’s overall voice.  Know how offbeat and radical you can be. How authoritative you should sound. You set your audience’s expectations. Although it’s sometimes OK to challenge those expectations, if your piece is going to seem out of place on your website, make sure it’s for a good reason.

7. Don’t fill it with “headlinese.” Because of newspaper formatting, some journalists developed a reductionist headline style, favoring short synonyms and jargon not typically used by their audience.  This ‘headlinese’ has led to many examples of unintentional (and hilarious) ambiguity.  Ambiguity doesn’t work online. Instead, use language you’d use in ordinary conversation.

8. Write more than one headline. Congratulations if your first attempt at writing a headline is perfect. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.  After the Poynter seminar, I now write three to five headlines because it forces me to focus on all of the details in my story.  Your headline variations don’t need to be dramatically different. Sometimes, it’s a slight tweak to your keywords or combining of elements from the other versions.  It also can mean flipping the action’s point of view.

9. Don’t save your headline until the end.  There are valid arguments on both sides of the “write the headline first vs. write it last” debate.  I used to advocate for waiting until the end to write my headline. Then I tried writing it earlier in my blogging process and found it helped the rest of my post.

I still do my newsgathering first; however, after reviewing my notes and seeing what the story is, I write the headline before anything else.  I’ll edit my headline after writing my first draft, but having one early on helps me organize the article and find my lede.

Don’t feel overwhelmed. There’s art and science to headline writing and the only way to get better is with practice.

Poynter’s next Web Headlines and SEO Essentials seminar with Schlander takes place in December. It will provide hands-on headline writing and an in-depth understanding of online best practices. You can find more information about this and Poynter’s other online classes at newsu.org/courses.

A version of this post originally appeared on Beyond Bylines. Keep up on media trends, tips for bloggers and journalists, and industry Q&As by subscribing to PR Newswire’s media blog or following us on Twitter @BeyondBylines.

Author Amanda Hicken is a media relations manager with PR Newswire. In addition to blogging on Beyond Bylines, she pens the local interest blog Clue Into Cleveland. Follow her at @ADHicken.

Grammar Hammer: Is That Adverb Necessary?

the Grammar Hammer

In honor of back to school season, ABC aired a special ranking the best episodes of Schoolhouse Rock of all time.  I’ve shared my affection for Schoolhouse Rock before, and I am happy to report that my personal favorite, “Conjuction Junction” took the number 1 spot! Another one of my favorites, which also claimed a spot on the countdown, is “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” about a family-run business selling adverbs. “Lolly, Lolly” has inspired the subject of this week’s Grammar Hammer.

Adverbs modify other words such as:

  • A verb
  • An adjective
  • Another adverb

Adverbs will tell you how, where, when, in what manner, or to what extent an action should be performed. The easiest adverbs to identify are the ones that end in ly, but just because a word ends in –ly, it’s not necessarily an adverb. Also, not all adverbs end in –ly, and there are adverbial phrases that don’t end in –ly. Back into the grammatical minefield we go!

My biggest tip for using adverbs in writing is to consider whether or not you need them. Very popular adverbs like “really,” “very,” “quite,” “extremely,” and “severely” are intended as intensifiers. Consider whether or not what you’re trying to communicate needs to be intensified.

For example, saying “The house was severely destroyed by the fire,” doesn’t add anything to the prose. The house was destroyed by fire. Saying it was severely destroyed invokes more emotion, but is it necessary to what you’re trying to say?

Grammar Hammer, at your service… indubitably.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Two Spaces or Not Two Spaces?

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two spaces

I’m of the age that one of the classes I took in high school was typing. Putting two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence was drilled into our heads as a best practice with no rhyme or reason for why this was necessary. Recently, a heated discussion over whether this practice is correct or incorrect surfaced on my social media feed, a subject I felt was worth discussing in this week’s Grammar Hammer.

There is some history to the “two space” practice. I’d always thought it had to do with the art of typesetting and those who manually set each letter and block. The “modern” convention of one space following the end of a sentence is traced back as far as the early 1920s.

In today’s digital world, two spaces is unnecessary, and as such I’ve discontinued the [space space] habit pounded into my brain from my younger years. What are your convictions on this subject? Are you a die-hard two spacer? Or have you adapted to the freedom that digital media provides and go with the single space after your sentence’s punctuation?

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: ICYMI, Catfishing and Brick Have New Definitions

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Oxford Dictionary

The Oxford Dictionary just unveiled the newest additions to their dictionary, and I have to admit that I was caught quite off guard by some of the entries. Apart from some buzz-wordy jargon that I could see in professional writing (pharmacovigilance), most of these words are ones I would only expect to see in more casual styles of writing or slang phrases like “hot diggity” and “spit take,” but I did learn a few interesting new things:

Catfishing- a concept recently made famous by MTV, means “to lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.”

Brick- what I originally only thought of as a rectangular block made of clay used to build things is now also a reference to early-model cell phones that were large and heavy or to mobile devices that no longer work and just sits there (like a brick).

I also finally learned the meanings of acronyms typically used in text messaging or social media such as:

SMH – shaking my head

ICYMI – in case you missed it

YOLO – you only live once

What are your thoughts on the recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary? See Oxford’s list here (http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/08/oxford-dictionaries-update-august-2014).

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: All Day “Every Day” or “Everyday”?

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everyday vs every day

A suggestion from a loyal reader inspired this week’s Grammar Hammer. Is everyday one word or two words (every day)?

Both variations refer to an activity that occurs on a daily basis. As usual, the best way to determine which version to use depends on the context. If I am discussing the routine activities that comprise my life, I would call those “everyday activities,” because in this instance, “everyday” is used as an adjective to describe those activities.


  • I found the best shoes! They are perfect for everyday wear.
  • When it comes to hosting the big holiday meal, I don’t use the everyday dishes, instead I use our finest china.
  • “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is not a word that you hear in everyday speech.

Remember: when using “everyday,” think of commonplace or ordinary things

If I’m telling you something that I do each day, I would say, “I have to fix my cup of coffee every day before I even think about tackling email.” I’m using “every” as an adjective in this instance to describe the noun “day.”


  • One thing that makes my house smell fresh and clean is to scoop the cat’s litter box every day.
  • Every day, I try to walk 10,000 steps.
  • I have an uncontrollable urge to nap every day at 2:41 p.m.

Remember: if your variation of everyday/every day can be replaced with “each day?” you need the adjective + noun formula of “every” and “day.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Elicit vs. Illicit

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Elicit v IllicitElicit and illicit might sound similar, but technically they are not homophones and their meanings are vastly different.  The words are occasionally confused due to their similar pronunciation and spelling , which is why they are the focus of today’s Grammar Hammer.

“Elicit” is a verb that means “to obtain.” It can also mean “to draw out, to extract, or to evoke.” For example, “The community advocate elicited hundreds of signatures to prevent the destruction of neighborhood landmarks.”

“Illicit” is an adjective that means “disapproved for moral reasons.” For example, “The IT department scanned all computers for illicit activity.”

To help you remember – use “illicit” if you are describing something that is typically against the rules. Use “elicit” when you are (or aren’t) receiving something (a response, etc.).

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Justice is Served for Common “Word Crimes”

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I would be remiss if I didn’t spotlight Weird Al Yankovic’s latest hit, “Word Crimes” as the star of this week’s Grammar Hammer. Off his newest album, “Mandatory Fun,” the viral sensation tackles the most egregious grammar errors of all time and proves once and for all that you can be a stunningly creative songwriter and still employ the rules of grammar to get your point across.

To my delight, I counted ten grammar topics mentioned in “Word Crimes” that I have also covered via Grammar Hammer:

  • Verb tense
  • Nouns and prepositions
  • Less vs. Fewer
  • I could care less
  • Oxford comma
  • Homophones
  • Who/Whom
  • Quotation Marks
  • Good vs. Well
  • Literally vs. Figuratively

I also gained a few more great suggestions for future posts, which shows that we have a lot of work left to do when it comes to fighting bad grammar. At PR Newswire, the Customer Content Services Team thoroughly reads each press release that crosses our wire and catches around 4,000 errors per month. It’s slightly embarrassing (but more delightful) to think about how often I engage in conversations about grammar with my team.

Tweet your favorite #wordcrimes to me @cathyspicer or drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

You might also want to check out Grammarly’s exclusive interview with Yankovic about the song and the challenges of proper grammar in songwriting.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.