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© 2007 Ugur Akinci
Writing great headlines is a true art. Some people I suspect are born with the knack of whipping up drop-dead perfect headlines at the drop of a hat. But then, to some extent, writing good headlines can be taught and learned as well.
Here is one time-tested venerable principle: make sure that your verb is somehow organically related to the core character, the main characteristics of the subject of the sentence, but it should be used in a DIFFERENT context.
Take for example this great headline by the New York Times (June 13, 2007):
“Casinos Go All In To Draw Asians” … Perfect!
“Going all in” is a poker term and represents a situation in which a player risks everything. The writer could have said “Casinos Pull All Stops To Draw Asians”… or “Casinos Risk It All To Draw Asians” but it would not be the same. It would not have the same punch and the same juice.
Here the action phrase “going all in” is perfectly related to the “casinos.” It is also used not in its traditional context of poker but in a new context of marketing. That unexpected cognitive shift injects power to the expression while still closely keeping our attention riveted to the gambling framework.
Contrast this power headline with a very weak one used by the Wall Street Journal again (by sheer coincidence?) to open a gambling story in its June 13, 2007 issue:
“What Happens in Vegas, Goes to China” (hello?)
We of course know where this headline is coming from — it’s a cutesy word play on the Vegas marketing slogan “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”
But to be aware of this trick is not enough to understand what the story is really about. What does it mean something “Going to China”? What is it that goes to China? It’s not immediately clear.
For example, this lazy echo of a well-known slogan justifies us to wonder if “extramarital affairs” started in Vegas end up “in China” somehow? It misdirects our attention.
Then we read the accompanying subheader: “$2.2 Billion Casino Resort Is Part of New Push in Cotai To Lure Gamblers, Travelers”
O-kay… now we see what the header was talking about.
But if a header needs a subheader to be understood, then it is failing in its primary function of immediately communicating the core summary of the news story. Otherwise why open a story with a header at all?
More on this topic later on, with more practical tips for writing great headlines…