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Ask for help if stuck writing a headline

Ideally, headlines market a story to the reader. As a reader scans a page to see what might interest them, a catchy headline will make one to pause and read the story as opposed to a dull headline that will achieve just the opposite.

An enticing headline will pique the interest of the reader, causing them to go into the story to find out if what the headline is offering is actually there. But while they market a story, headlines are not supposed to tell the story. Instead, they should be like pointers to what the story is about.

There are many dos and don’ts in headline writing, as sub-editors and editors will tell you. They will also tell you that writing good headlines comes with experience, and that there are some good headline days and others that are not so good.

And the art of headline writing also depends on other variables. These include the available space, the pressure to meet a deadline, and even the story itself. There are some stories that just do not render themselves to great headlines. For instance, if the sub-editor does not understand a story, they will struggle to get an appropriate headline for it.

One rule in headline writing is to avoid abbreviations. If a sub-editor must use these, then no more than one should be used. The idea is to make the reader not to struggle to understand what is being said. In the Standard newspaper of Friday, April 26, a story on the front page was headlined “How CBC exam will differ from KCPE, KCSE”. A foreigner visiting the country for a few days may not know what KCPE is or KCSE for that matter.

Given that the story was on a single column, one can understand the difficulties the editor must have faced to fit the headline. Perhaps the editor would have avoided the use of the three abbreviations if they had more space to say what they wanted to.

So, even though the headline count was good, and the editor was able to fit it in the available space, they did this by breaking the rule on use of more than one abbreviation. But those who are and have been in the newsroom can appreciate the editor’s dilemma.

Probably one of the reasons for those who came up with the abbreviations rule was because when used in headlines they are unattractive. The capital letters are not so easy on the eyes and slow down the reader.

Sub-editors should never feel shy to ask a colleague for help if they get stuck with a headline. This is something that is not so common in newsrooms but would go a long way in getting the right headlines. What one editor struggles with may come more easily to another. If you find yourself spending 15 minutes or more trying to get the right header, why not run it through your colleague? They may just get the headline for you or suggest a word you had not thought about. Afterall, achieving a good product should be a collaborative effort.

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