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Headlines - Style Rules

Updated on June 10, 2012

By LESLIE A. PANFIL

Rules regarding headlines vary. As director of public relations for an international trade show, our policy was to capitalize every first letter in the headline with the exception of prepositions, articles or conjunctions. We also used punctuation at the end of our headlines.

Example: The Grand Stage Thrills Audiences from Coast to Coast.

The newspaper I write for now would publish this headline as:

The Grand Stage thrills audiences from coast to coast

Grand Stage is capitalized because it is a proper name the rest of the sentence is lower case and no punctuation is used at the end. Note: this is considered proper Associated Press format.

More punctuation. Capitalize the word following semicolon. Use periods for abbreviations and single quotes in place of double quotes.

Don’t take it personal. Some publications don’t want you to provide a headline and some change what you have submitted. Don’t despair. Headlines are frequently changed because of space. The editing of your headline probably has more to do with the pagination process than your writing skills.

Simple and direct headlines are nearly always preferred. No one likes to be tricked. Don’t mislead your readers by making your headline appear to be about one thing when it is actually about something all together different. I love a play on words headline because it shows how cleaver I am. However, puns in headlines should be reserved for more light hearted feature stories rather than hard news.

Verbs. Headlines should never start with a verb. Like all good writing, a great headline use verbs that pack a punch. Writing for the internet has changed the face of this rule however. If you are writing for the internet, opt for a title based SEO (Search Engine Optimization) phrasing. The closer your headline is to the exact words a person might search for when looking for information on the topic you are writing about, the more likely your online story will be found in the sea of like minded topics.

Numbers. The usual rules about numbers go right out the window when it comes to headlines. (see my rules about numbers story.) It is perfectly acceptable to start a headline with a number. However, even if it is under 10, do not spell it out. Example: 5 students awarded scholarships. Note: editors love articles that contain 10 tips – 5 reasons . . . It gives readers an accurate idea of what they will gain from reading your work.

Free. The word free in an online headline is particularly helpful. Many people search free patterns for example to help cut through all the products sold online.

Alignment. Press releases usually contain headlines that are centered. However, general journalistic style calls for headlines to be aligned flush left.

Tense. Present tense is acceptable for immediate past information. Past tense should be used when describing past perfect happenings and future tense for upcoming events.

ALL CAPS. Never say never. All caps are rarely used in headlines and should be reserved for earth shattering news like: ALIENS HAVE LANDED

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