Plan A Head

No, that is not a typo. In this 52-week learning quest toward better writing, this week’s installment is on that most important finishing touch: writing a decent headline. Or subject line, heading, report title—whatever caps your communication of the moment.

No matter how brilliant your content, if you put a ho-hum, boring—dare I say old school journalistic—title on it, you may as well have typed out your weekly grocery list.

Handwritten Grocery List

Sure the occasional devoted reader might still wade in to your copy. But let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of potential readers of anything are scanners at best. Without an element of intrigue they can’t miss, you’re wasting a whole lot of communication real estate.

Back in the day (since I am officially middle aged, I’m entitled to say that at least once a week) I distinctly remember an editor from the Lansing State Journal speaking in one of my J-school classes about her job. She was—and this was hard to believe it was someone’s full time job even in those days—the headline editor.

Later that week at the Peanut Barrel—then, the go-to place for J-school graduate students—several of my classmates commented on how much they’d love to have that woman’s job. For me, it was one of those moments where you try to look inconspicuous and hope no one notices you’re the only one not nodding in agreement. My thoughts were more along the lines of “No way would I ever want to be in that pressure cooker!”

In short, when it comes to headlines…A Natural Me Not. So, I’ve found ways to cope. I really wish I had a Top Ten List of great ways to solve the headline dilemma. But I’ve only got four. (I’m open to ideas here…)

Here they are, in no particular order.

1) Borrow from other publications and adapt it for your unique purpose

There’s no harm in finding inspiration from others, right? That is, as long as you don’t cross the plagiarism line of course. When I get stuck, I like to browse through examples of excellence.

Inspiration Next Exit Sign

One of my favorite sites for that is It’s a brilliantly curated collection of new and classic articles, culled from a myriad of excellent sources on the web. As the name implies, these are substantial pieces and nearly always have interesting titles. You won’t find a “So-and-so Wins Award” in the bunch.

Here’s a sampling of some recent offerings and how you could repurpose the headline concept:

“THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A SHOOTER” –An essay on why people play violent video games by Tom Bissel in Grantland
This concept could be repurposed for anything you’ve got that lends itself to a list, especially when the list is an unexpected number. And, the topic is equally unexpected: “Eleven Ways of Looking at Robo Hamsters”, and etc.

“WE’RE GETTING WILDLY DIFFERING ASSESSMENTS” –Covering the chaotic nine minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its health care ruling by Tom Goldstein in Scoutusblog
If you are lucky enough to have any kind of short, pithy quote in your piece, why not put it up front?

“WILL YOU STILL MEDAL IN THE MORNING?” –A feature on sex in the Olympic Village by Sam Alipour, ESPN
Admittedly a tie to sex isn’t appropriate for a business report but I like the idea of using a question. Not to mention, bending a well-known phrase, which leads me to my next idea.

2) Flip that tired old adage; pun intended!

Some of the best headlines, take some familiar saying and swap out a word or two to give it new meaning. Done right, it comes off smart. Done wrong, it’s just painful.

Terrible Puns

One I wrote recently was for a web page about students painting an iconic rock on our campus in our school color: green. It was in honor of class gifts and really was undertaken to provide a photo for the contents page of our magazine. I titled the web page “Between a Rock and a Green Place.”

Maybe it was painful for fans of other places, but our fans seemed to think it fit our culture just right. is a great site for scanning for potential phrases to turn. You could also consider twisting up part of a well-known verse, song title or lyric; and etc.

3) With a preposition

I believe an element of surprise is key to a good header. For example, say a list of seemingly disparaging things. Prepositional phrases came to my rescue in that sort of regard twice this week.
I had a working headline I hated. And my boss hated it even more than I did. With the magic preposition “Making the Grass Greener and Lives Richer” (UGH) became “On Graduation Speeches, Gifts and Golf”.
The other one? “Science Olympians Go for Gold” (double UGH) became “Of Trebuchets, Bridges and Mousetraps.”

4) Throw in the weird

In an ideal world, the writer of the content would never come up with the title for that content. Instead, a fresh set of eyes would take over; such as someone with a knack for copy writing. But anyone can start to think like a copy writer by looking for unusual elements to highlight. And then stating them in an unusual way; such as in the form of a question.

If a photo or illustration will be featured with your piece, that is a great place to start. For example, in a piece on the academic impact of faculty chair endowments, our most excellent design team came up with putting a giant chair into an aerial photo of our campus. By giant, I mean its real world dimensions would have been about 200 stories high. So the headline became “What’s so BIG about a chair?”

Granted there is a place for a dry, factual headline. Media releases, white papers and grant proposals to name just a few. But, there is also a place for fun and drama.

Great examples and different techniques wanted here. Please post if you’ve got them.


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