Every piece of writing needs some sort of title, whether it be a fictional story or a nonfiction book. For journalistic articles, titles are a little bit more complicated. They break into short headlines, longer decks, and informational bylines and datelines. These types of article headers (along with subheads that are spread throughout some stories) are meant to inform the reader and draw them in (like any title) at the same time.
Headlines: Grabbing Attention
All stories start with a headline. Headlines act as the title of the story and consist of 4-8 words in a larger print to grab the reader’s attention. Headlines are really important. They are the first impression a reader gets from an article—and if the headline is weak, it’s the only thing they see. Headlines must be able to bear the story’s meaning without any context, especially online: when a story is forwarded on Facebook or Twitter, often the only text that remains by a story image is the headline. Good headlines have five qualities:
- THEY ARE FITTING: Headlines need to make a promise to the reader of what is in the article, so they need to not only fit the content of the article but the tone of the article. News articles should have objective, to the point headlines; reviews should have positive or negative language in their headlines that hint toward the final recommendation; features and profiles should be creative and spirited.
- THEY ARE CLEAR: Keep the headline as short as possible. Avoid words the audience may not know (or that don't match the diction in the article) and don't use acronyms or other names or titles that readers may be unfamiliar with. At the same time, be specific with your diction and use striking verbs that can only be taken one way (like convince, violated, or usurp).
- THEY ARE ATTRACTIVE: You want to have a headline that makes the reader want to read more--something that engages their intellect or emotion and makes them curious to read more. Use a funny headline to make the reader laugh. Use a witty (but not to clever) phrase to make them think. Use a shocking headline to make them gasp. If you can attract a reader by making them feel something, they will read the article.
Decks: Creating Clarity
Decks (also called straplines) appear immediately below the headline and summarize the whole story in a sentence. This should answer the who and what of the story—if the headline is brief, the deck goes in depth. The deck provides the additional detail needed to understand the context or importance of the headline. Decks can also clarify the types of story the reader will see if it's a feature--often, decks will mention if the article is a do's and don'ts list, a Q&A,, or a narrative story. Decks are important for stories because they can clear up any misconceptions that readers have after reading the headline. Decks also work well as messages and tweets for forwarding stories on social media. Like headlines, decks should fit the story's tone, use clear language, and attract readers with active verbs. Decks should also be longer than headlines but still brief--no more than twenty words long. In formatting, decks should be larger than the text but under half the size of the headline.
Bylines and Datelines: Giving Credit
Unlike headlines and decks, bylines and datelines (which are found under the headline and deck in a smaller font) are pretty straightforward. The byline is simply an attribution of the author or authors of the story along with their staff role. If the story is not by a staff reporter, the byline lists the author as a guest columnist or, if they are a journalist for another outlet, the news agency that employs them. As the byline answers where a story originated, a dateline shows when it originated, with both date and time for online articles (in print, this is usually date and page number). Bylines are datelines are important because they create a record that can be referenced by other journalists.
To Subhead or Not to Subhead
If a news article or feature article is very long (typically more than 2500 words), you may need to break it into related sections using a subhead, which consists of just a couple of words that relate to the section. Subheads are tricky because they are like mini headlines--they need to summarize the section it introduces but also be no longer than six words long. Subheads can be short statements or questions and, unlike headlines, can be somewhat generic or cliche as they don't have to carry the weight of an entire story. Regarding format, subheads are bold but the same size and font as the body copy.