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The job of the headline writer is to capture the essence of the story in a few words.

The headline sells the story.

Some people are brilliant at it. Years ago I wrote a story for a newspaper about how car rental company Hertz was planning to grab market share from its rival Avis.

The headline writer came up with this:

Hitting Avis where it Hertz

Irreverent, yes, but also funny. I doubt Avis were pleased, but our job was not to pander to the sensibilities of companies in the public eye.

One of the best headlines I’ve seen, and one now firmly embedded in publishing lore, is “Thanks for the Mammary” above a picture of Wimbledon tennis hopeful Linda Siegel, whose breast popped out of her ill-fitting dress in a 1979 match against Billie Jean King. Linda lost to Billie Jean in two straight sets and we never heard from her again.

Here’s Linda in her prime (though not the picture that made her famous).

Linda, thanks for the mammary


Linda facing off against Billie Jean

The point is this: a funny or arresting headline is far more enduring than the details embedded in the story.

A headline should be 3 to 10 words, and need not be a complete sentence, but it should capture the essence of the story truthfully and without embellishment.

Other than that, there aren’t too many rules to headline writing…..other than the brilliance of the writer in grabbing attention.

Try these out for size:

  • How to get fit the easy way
  • Get fit as a marathon runner in under 15 minutes a day

The second one works because it knows we dread physical exertion and promises fat results for little effort.

  • Get rich slow
  • From broke to millionaire in one year

No contest. The second guy gets my attention.

  • The art of courting as rendered by Florentine libertines
  • How to get any girl to go out with you

Hmmm. Again, no contest, unless you are fascinated by Florentine libertines.

It’s a good discipline to develop the art of headline writing. Especially in the Google age where search engines are honed to sniff out headlines that are clear and succinct.

Good hunting!