Crafting a Knockout Headline

Journalists used to be the only ones who had to write headlines. Now business owners are their own bloggers, reporters, and social media managers. Copywriters are crafting webpage headlines, subheadlines, and even email subject lines. It seems like everyone who is either a writer or in the business marketing field needs to know how to write a good headline of some sort . . . even if it’s not a traditional news headline.

I cultivated some experience in headline writing when I was a copy editor for Gannett. I thought I would only be editing stories, but it turned out half my job was creating headlines–and doing it so they’d fit in tight spaces. You learn a lot of really short words when you’re short on space. (Who knew back then that I’d be doing the same thing on Twitter 10 years later, strategizing on which words to cram in headline advertising articles I’d written for other news publications?)

Looking to pen an attention-getting headline that lures readers in and sums up what an article has to say? Here are a few tips.

Determine what word must go in. In news, it’s imperative to have certain words from your story in the headline. If I am writing an article for a health publication about a new cancer drug, I definitely want to get “cancer” in there, if not “new” and “drug” too. In more evergreen content, I may be able to add more phrases, but I still want to know which words must go in. What individual words do you think have to go in the headline so your reader gets the gist of the article? Do you need action words to make the reader take action? Keep this in mind as you identify those “must-add” words.

Know your audience and the medium. Space doesn’t matter as much if you’re on LinkedIn, but it can if you’re working in a print publication or say, for an email newsletter article. Again, if you’re writing for a newspaper, you want to get a few certain key words in the headline so the reader has an idea of what the story is about. Also, you may want a more lax, attention-grabbing headline if the headline is not for a news outlet and is instead a social media post promoting a headline. In news, it’s more of sticking to a few words that sum up the article instead of getting a reader to click on it, though you likely want them to read on for more information. News readers want to be able to skim a headline and get the gist of the development. On the flip side, in copywriting, a headline can give a summary but also be used to engage the reader to take action or read the entire article. Look at past articles or content to get a feel for the tone.

When I’m writing about that cancer drug in news, my headline may be “New Cancer Drug Extends Life,” while an email or social media headline may be “The Cancer Drug That Could Help You Live Longer.” Big difference!

Add action. Depending on where your headline will appear, it’s important to add action. News readers want to know what the news is, while an email subject line (it kind of counts as a headline) will want to drive the user to open the message and convey what they’ll get if they do.

Think phrasing. I love what this article has to say about the phrases we can choose, as certain ones can be more effective for different mediums. Keep in mind that “will make you” and “this is why” may work awesome in an email subject line–but not so great for a news headline. If you’ve got more room, flexibility or the ability to add in a subhead, that’s where a good phrase can come in handy. Otherwise, I stick to identifying the must-feature words and building a headline around those words.


Kristen Fischer is a copywriter and journalist living at the Jersey Shore. She worked as a reporter and copyeditor for Gannett before launching her full-time freelance business in 2005. Her work has been published in ParentsNew Jersey MonthlyPreventionWoman’s DaySheKnows, and Healthline.

Pitch–Don’t Perfect–Stories

I was reading a post this week in a community forum about an essay writer. She wanted to know how she could find “homes” for her work.

Instantly, I felt strongly that her question revealed the problem. She was writing and storing up essays without any publication in sight. Thus, she was spending all her time wrestling over the writing process instead of focusing some of her time on selling the work.

Her method for selling the finished work was then to ask other writers to find “homes” for the essays. But her job as a writer–or at least as one who wants to earn money from writing is to also research for possible avenues where her work can be promoted and sold. As you know, a freelance journalist rarely just writes. I can’t tell you how much time I spend searching for markets and connecting with editors. But in doing that, I know where my writing can find a home.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with penning essays and then selling them. Some of our best work can come when we’re not writing an assignment under a deadline. But when you’re looking to make a living, you often have to pitch them first. Or at least know where you eventually want to propose the articles. Otherwise, you’re just saying you have a stash of stories waiting to be sold as does everyone else.


Focus on the Pitch Prior to Writing

This is what I see as one of the top problems that new writers face when they’re trying to break into this field. While I’m an advocate of the “just write” mentality, you’re wasting your business resources–and time–when you write without a focus on selling an article or essay. You’re also wasting your time if you try to perfect your work on your own, because an editor may want to make changes to it after they acquire it.

So how do you know a publication will want your article as it is written? Maybe the editor wants to give his or her input for a specific angle. If you write it out and spend too much time “perfecting” it, you will be spending more time on it.

In looking at the writer’s guidelines, a publication may want to buy an essay after it’s completed. But don’t assume it. Many outlets want a thoughtful pitch before you begin writing. The editor wants to hear your idea, add something to it to give you direction, and receive a draft that meets these requirements.

This is a bit different in the essay-writing field, where a lot of publications want to buy essays on spec and are usually paid on a lower scale.

Here’s my advice in this situation: Have a few publications in mind before you start writing away your best stories and wondering why outlets aren’t lined up to purchase them. If you do draft a piece, don’t worry too much about editing it–just get the idea down. Pitch your essays out so you receive an assignment. Editors rarely ask a writer they’ve never worked with what kinds of essays are sitting on their hard drives.

Your time is precious, and so is your creativity. Nothing kills a creative writer like the person with a trove of stories waiting to “find a home.” Shelter cats find homes. Your work needs to be sold if you’re going to be a reputable working writer.

Find yourself a home with a publication and connect with the editors there. Build up your portfolio. Then, hopefully by the time you have that killer essay idea, you only have to write an elevator pitch about it and you will have that awesome, paying assignment already lined up.

Kristen Fischer is a copywriter and journalist living at the Jersey Shore. She worked as a reporter and copyeditor for Gannett before launching her full-time freelance business in 2005. Her work has been published in ParentsNew Jersey MonthlyPreventionWoman’s DaySheKnows, and Healthline.

5 Questions You’re Not Asking Sources, But Should Be Asking

As journalists, our job is not to simply ask questions–but to ask the ones that get original comments and insights that inform the reader! While I don’t cover many topics that are controversial and don’t have to ask gripping questions, I like to throw out a question or two during an interview that my source may not have heard. As such, I get answers that other publications may not be receiving, which gives my work a different angle. Editors love that.

While some organizations only want the news, you may add value to it by asking a question that other reporters may not think to bring up.

Here are a few questions that I try to include during interviews.

  1. What surprised you about this? Sometimes we get so wrapped up covering the who/what/when/where/why of things that we forget to prompt our source to give their personal opinion. Instead of inquiring about what the source thinks, ask them what surprised them about something. I love doing this for medical studies because an author likely knows what the outcome of an experiment will be, but you may get more insight into why findings should matter for a reader if you can tell them what surprised the expert. You can also use other feelings in place of “surprised” for other topics, such as “What angered you about this?” or “What pleased you most about this?”
  1. What is the media getting wrong in the coverage about this? I love this one because it gives you a chance to get it right. This can be a huge win because some sources have been interviewed multiple times and see inaccurate articles being posted with their comments referenced or taken out of context. They may be reluctant to share with you because you’re “the media.” When I can come in and “clean up the mess,” I please the source and the publication I’m writing for.
  1. What don’t you want people to take from this? We often ask sources to explain something or share how they feel about it. This doesn’t let the source speak to the reader who may not be fully comprehending the story or the ramifications of the news. This question addresses it!
  1. What does this mean for people? Got a source that can’t quite seem to break technical information down in layman’s terms? Note the audience of your article and ask the source what it means for that specific group of people. When I write consumer health news, I talk to a lot of researchers and doctors who are wrapped up in the findings and may not be able to translate the details into valuable information for consumers. This question helps you target your audience and get your source to speak to them directly.
  1. Anything you want to add off the record? While I’m all about getting the best comment to quote, sometimes you may understand the perspective of an issue by asking for information off the record. Not only can it help you understand an issue or action taken (or not taken), but it can give you insight to prompt another source who will speak about something on the record. It can also lead you to another story idea!


Kristen Fischer is a copywriter and journalist living at the Jersey Shore. She worked as a reporter and copyeditor for Gannett before launching her full-time freelance business in 2005. Her work has been published in Parents, New Jersey Monthly, Prevention, Woman’s Day, SheKnows, and Healthline.