February 14, 2016

Freelance Writers – Write Headlines and Leads Like a Pro Journalist

Journalist headline and lead crafting secrets uncovered. The Dream Team talks so your website rocks – Part III

Headlines and leads capture your reader and keep him until the end.

Headlines and leads represent two of the most important elements of any news story – or anything, in article format, that you want others to read to the end. Headlines must hook the reader by capturing his or her attention in some way. Once hooked, the reader will automatically scan the lead of your story.

Baiting the Hook 

The headline must use specific wording capture reader attention and hold it. Typically, a headline consists of subject and verb that make some sort of statement about the story topic.

Journalists sometimes write the headline in such a way that the verb is not expressly stated, but implied. They do this to keep headlines brief and concise.

The fictional headline below doesn’t express the verb “says”, but implies it within the context of Clark’s statement.

Brian Clark: the dream team’s creativity rocks. 

When you do expressly include a verb, use the active form rather than passive. Tell your readers that the rest of the story contains important information by using strong, active verbs in the present tense. Most modern day readers, whether reading a print periodical or an online version of a story, quickly tire of formulaic stories written in passive voice. 

Keep headlines direct, clear, and simple. Avoid using big words and awkward or vague wording that may mislead readers. Do not exaggerate or sensationalize; both of these carry a high potential to mislead readers, degrading their trust in the authority of your writing.

Capitalization and Other Tidbits 

Most news stories capitalize only the first word and proper nouns in headlines with everything else in lower case. Use number digits, rather than spelling out numbers in headlines. Use a comma rather than the word “and” in headlines.

Patriots spank Cowboys, move up in NFL ranks

When writing for a news outlet, or other publication that adheres to certain formatting guidelines, you must follow their preferred stylebook precisely.

But, when writing content for your own website, you can capitalize every word in every headline and subtitle. You can editorialize and force your opinions on your readers; although certain opinions may cause a reader and subscriber exodus, so take care. Create cutesy headlines, headlines with puns and clichés. You know, express your inner rebel.

You can even write your own stylebook for team members and guest contributors to follow when submitting content. Keep it short and sweet, including only those formatting and style elements most important to you and your vision for your site’s visual appeal.

Lead the Read – All the Way 

Be the boss of the blogosphere with snappy, attention grabbing leads.

The lead consists of the first one or two sentences of the story body. Similar to the topic sentence of an essay, it should summarize the primary points of the story cleverly, so it will capture the interest of readers that have the highest attraction to the subject.

Stress the unusual, important, and current points about the story. Routine information will lose your readers to another, more enticing story – one with a strong, weighty lead. Typically, journalists avoid using a question within the lead. Freelance writers can write headlines in the form of a question, but keep your lead in the form of strong statements, using active verbs and a direct message.

Boss of the Blog 

You own your piece of cyberspace and can further develop these tips to give your website that extra punch it needs – that punch and wow-factor that will make it rise above the endless sea of blogs offering similar content.

Add your pearls of wisdom: Share your own take on creating compelling headlines and riveting leads.

About Samantha Gluck

Not only am I the chief editor of this multi-author online magazine, I'm a content creator and social media marketing strategist with a background in journalism, finance, & healthcare. I began my content marketing agency, All Media Freelance, LLC, in 2010 and lead a well-rounded, talented team of multi-channel content strategists and niche writers. I've developed and managed print and digital content projects for health care, fitness, financial services, mental health, non-profit, and automotive publishers, as well as for biotechnology brands.


  1. Thank you for these tips! I have to write a couple of articles in the future, and it’s been a long time since I attended my last writing class, so I wanted to catch up on the main issues I need to focus on while writing. You did a great job explaining the most important aspects of a good article with all the accompanying texts, so I have to give you a huge thank you for it once again!
    Have a great year, Leonard

    • I’m so glad you found them helpful, Leonard, and thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. Please send links to the stories/articles you write, so I can read them. I’m always interested in new writer voices and talent. You have a great year too, friend, and hope to see you here often. Samantha


  1. [...] your feature stand out in the sea of choices, you must come up with an attention grabbing, creative headline and lead. Miss the mark on this, and readers will likely pass over your story for one with a more effective [...]

  2. [...] headlines that draw readers to the story lead. I even shared some straight journalist tips with you here. But today, in honor of the month of love and romance – the one all men await breathlessly – [...]

  3. […] written about how to write great headlines in the past, but haven’t shared any of my journalist’s secrets in quite some time. […]

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