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Newspaper Writing - Writing The Head

( Originally Published 1911 )

The art of arts, the glory of expression, and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity — nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness.— WALT WHITMAN.

Newspapers in Greeley's day were judged by their editorials; today they are judged in large measure by their headlines. Big type is associated in our minds with the sensational. The paper that habitually uses scare heads is put down as yellow, while the paper with subdued heads is regarded as conservative in its policies. The distinction does not always hold good : a newspaper with conservative heads may be essentially yellower in its treatment of news than one which spreads a banner across the top of the first page to catch the eye of the possible buyer on the street. But as a rule it may safely be said that the style of heads mirrors in a general way the newspaper's character. It would be going too far, of course, to assert that yellowness is in direct proportion to the size of the headlines, but it is true in the main that small head letter stands for conservatism and glaring type for so-called yellowness, with the average American newspaper in the middle ground.

Whether or not headlines are an index to news policy, they are one of the most important features of the modern newspaper. Properly written, they enable the busy reader to grasp quickly all the essential facts of the day's news. The head is nothing more nor less than the story in tabloid form. (See Figure I.) In this it differs radically from the title of a book or a play, which merely suggests the theme. The newspaper head is written to pique and gratify curiosity at the same time.


The head is an advertisement, and like all good advertisements it should be honest, holding out no promise that the story does not fulfill. It should be based on the facts as set forth in the story and nothing else. The head writer is bound by the same rules as the reporter; neither is permitted to " editorialize or to draw conclusions. If Smith is merely accused of murder for killing Jones, the fact that space is limited does not excuse the statement that Smith murdered Jones. As the story is qualified so should the head be. A libelous statement in a head is cause for a damage suit, even when the story itself is not libelous.

Like the story, the head should be simple. Here again the short Anglo-Saxon words are the best. Indeed, the head writer is put to the necessity of using short words if he would make the head tell the story. The head is a mosaic. Words must be fitted into a certain fixed space, in such a way that the meaning will not be obscured. This is the head writer's chief problem — to meet the mechanical requirements of the head and at the same time make the thought so plain that none can fail to understand.

A cardinal rule of head writing is expressed in the curt injunction: Get action into the head. Make the head a statement of fact, not a mere label. Never say " Shocking Accident " or " Terrible Fire," but tell what happened as specifically as possible. Try to get a verb in the head, either ex-pressed or implied. This rule, like all others that have to do with newspaper work, is not to be applied literally under all conditions. Exceptions may often be made in handling the feature story. But in nine cases out of ten the best headline is one that states a complete thought in the simplest possible manner.


As many ideas as possible should be crammed into the head. Hence the omission by most news-papers of " a," "an " and " the," and the rule against repeating important words. An article is used now and then to fill out a line, but rarely at the beginning of a line unless it is part of a title. The rule against the repetition of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, which is enforced by practically all newspapers, not only makes for variety in the head, but insures definiteness by compelling the copy reader to seek out descriptive words to fit the idea. For example, the top part of a head chosen at random reads : " Graham to Give Value for Taxpayers' Money." The second deck says : " Banker Candidate Promises to Apply Business Methods to Office if He Is Elected Mayor." Notice that the name Graham is not repeated, but that identifying words are used instead; he is the " banker candidate." The head is thus made more specific and an additional idea is introduced. The statement that he will " give value for taxpayers' money " is amplified and explained in the sentence following.

The copy reader's ingenuity is often put to the test when it becomes necessary to use synonyms in the head to avoid repetition. He should be on his guard against using interchangeably words of similar meaning. To call a modern hotel an inn or a woman a " member of the weaker sex " verges on the ridiculous. A cat is a cat or an animal, never a " feline."


Heads are usually written in the present tense unless they relate to a future event. This is the historical present, used instead of the past tense for the sake of greater vividness. " Defies His Accusers " drives home the recency of the occurrence. The reader feels that he is getting something new. " President Speaks at Albany " means that the President has just spoken, either on the day of publication or the previous day. It is news — the latest thing the President has done that is of public interest. It must not be inferred from this that the past tense is barred from the head. On the contrary there are occasions when it would be absurd to use anything else. The copy reader would write, " William Smith Dies " or " William Smith is Dead," but in giving details of the dead man's life it would be manifestly foolish to say, " Is Born in Missouri," " Is a Civil War Veteran." While the copy reader must observe the style of the paper that employs him, he is not expected to apply any rule slavishly in defiance of common sense.

The Kansas City Star and Times, recognized as one of the most carefully edited newspapers, affords a striking exception to the general practice of putting the head in the present tense and omitting the articles. The Star prefers the past tense when it can be properly used and encourages sentences with all the articles supplied. For example : " A Tennessee Wreck Hurt 2I — Two Coaches Were Burned, but Sixty Persons Escaped." Most news-papers would have said : " Tennessee Wreck Hurts 21 — Two Coaches Are Burned (or Burn), but Sixty Persons Escape." Without arguing the relative merits of the two types of heads, it is worth noting that the Star's departure from custom in this and other respects has given it a distinct individuality that no reader can overlook. (See Figure 4.)

Whichever tense is used, take care to make the head consistent throughout. Don't switch from the present to the past, or vice versa, without reason.


The divisions of a head are known variously as lines, decks or banks. A two-line or a two-deck head is one divided into two parts by a dash. The word " line " in this sense means a complete division of a head, no matter what its length in type lines. The top deck, which is set in the largest type, should contain the leading feature of the story. This is amplified and minor features are added in the other parts. Most papers require that each division of a head shall state a complete thought, having a verb expressed or implied; or, to put the rule negatively, that no sentence shall be continued from one division into another. The other type of head — the running head — is shown in this example from the Cincinnati Enquirer, the dashes indicating the divisional breaks : " Pomp — Waits on Humility,—As Dignitaries of a Great Church Bow in Prayer. — Impressive Scenes Witnessed at Music Hall — When Episcopal Triennial Convention Opened."

All heads are made local in their application. The word "here " in the head on an out-of-town story means the city in which the paper is published, not the place where the story originated. Time is given, in the head with reference to the date of publication. Thus a story dated May 9, is published in the morning paper of May io, and " today " in the head means May 10.


Alliteration occasionally may be used with good effect in a head, but unintentional alliteration — as " Commercial Club Considers Cleaning Contracts " — should be avoided. Slang, unless apt and timely, has no greater justification in the head than in the story.

Some newspapers forbid the head that asks a question, except perhaps on stories of a freakish nature, on the theory that a newspaper's business is to inform, not to ask questions. Others permit the questioning head as a means of qualifying a statement. Thus a report which has not been verified may be headed with a line followed by an interrogation point, as " Revolution in Cuba? " This style of head writing may easily be overworked. Seeing several question marks on the same page, the reader might jump to the conclusion that he had better subscribe for a paper that can tell him something instead of one that appears to deal mainly in rumors.

Another style of head discouraged or forbidden altogether by some papers is the unintentional imperative. This is a head beginning with a verb in the third person plural form, which may be read as an injunction to do something. " Kill Thirty Men" may be the head on a story of an insurrection. It means, of course, " They Kill Thirty Men," but the form, when the subject is not ex-pressed, is also the imperative. Only a few news-papers bar this head altogether, as there is seldom any possibility that it will be misconstrued. An iron-clad rule forbidding it can be justified only on the ground that the rule is part of a newspaper's arbitrary style.

Trite phrasing should be avoided in the head whenever possible. " Score" and "probe" and " rap " are handy words for the copy reader because of their brevity and are liable to overuse. The head that contains worn-out expressions or that fails to get anywhere is, in the office vernacular, wooden. Woodenness is an unpardonable sin. Try to give the head a swing and an element of originality.

Avoid negative statements in the head. Tell what happened rather than what didn't happen, unless a negation is the feature of the story.

Other things being equal, the active voice is better than the passive. " Jones Defeats Smith for Mayor " is preferable to " Smith Is Defeated by Jones."

Avoid the monotony of beginning each division of a three or four-deck head with the same subject. The following is an extreme example of this fault : " She Died To-day — Esteemed Lady Passes Away at Her Home West of City This Morning — She Was 85 Years of Age — She Leaves Five Children and Thirteen Grandchildren." An even more glaring defect in this head is the omission of the name. The reader learns only that " she " died.

Don't build any part of the head on a fact that is tucked away near the end of the story and hence may be pruned off in making up the paper. In handling a story that is likely to be cut down between editions, base the head on features well toward the beginning so that the head will not have to be changed.


Each head must be written according to a fixed typographical plan. There is a definite limit to the number of letters and spaces each type line will contain, and the copy reader who exceeds that limit is sure to be reminded, sarcastically, that " type isn't made of rubber." " Long heads "— heads that will not fit into the allotted space — are a source of vexation and delay if they are not repaired before being sent to the composing room. The copy reader should take pains to make each head fit the pattern before it leaves his hands. Until he lias familiarized himself with the heads he must write, he may find it convenient to keep at hand a style card on which is pasted a sample of each head used, with notations showing the number of letters and spaces to be written in the different divisions. Each type line is said to contain so many units, counting spaces as well as letters. All the letters of a line set in " caps " are one unit each, except I, which is one-half, and M and W, which are one and one-half each. The line, " WILLIAM SMITH DIES," contains I7% units (not counting the quotation marks). A unit beyond the usual limit may be crowded into the line by thin-spacing — that is, by allowing less than the regular space between words. The same system of counting is used for a line set in capitals and small letters, allowance of course being made for the greater width of the capitals.

The head should be symmetrical, but it is not required that it fit the pattern with absolute exactitude. Insistence on mechanical perfection would cause waste of time and might result in hiding the meaning. Sense should not be sacrificed to form. As between a mechanically exact head that is not clear and a head that is less symmetrical but tells the story plainly, the copy reader should choose the latter. For each line of a head there is a maximum and a minimum limit, and if the copy reader keeps within these the head will be as near to the standard as can be expected.

Figure 6 shows a two-line head with the top deck set in 3o-point condensed Gothic type and the second deck in I2-point Wayside. The top deck here is a drop line : the sentence drops down from one type line into another. The second is called a pyramid. In writing such a head a word in the first deck should never be divided. In the second deck division is permissible, but the head is better if it can be avoided. Fifteen to seventeen units in each line of the top deck make a symmetrical head, when both lines are approximately the same length. In writing the pyramid the copy reader after a little practice can tell at a glance whether a sentence will fit. Care should be taken not to place an indivisible word where it will cause trouble. For example, if the first line of a pyramid, set with the usual spacing between words, ends on the letter " m " in Schmidt," the word must be shifted to the second line, with the result that too much white space appears in the first. The dash is generally used to separate distinct ideas in the same deck of a head.

Various arbitrary rules affecting the mechanics of the head are observed by different newspapers, and the copy reader going from one paper to an-other is likely to find a brand new set of patterns to work by. These mechanical details, however, are easily mastered after one has acquired the knack of putting the story into terse, meaty sentences. The only way to learn how to write heads, after one knows the general principles, is to write them.


Overline.— Head over a cut. When the name appears under a cut (this being an underline), it is not repeated in the overline, which must be an identifying sentence. " Banker Who Is Running for Congress " and " Woman Who Shot at Burglar in Her Home " are typical overlines.

Box Head.— Head enclosed in a border. Many overlines are set in this way.

Banner.— A headline extending across the top of a page.

Jump or Run-Over Head.— Head used over the continuation of a story that runs over (jumps) from one page to another. Some newspapers re-quire a new head for the jump; others use the top deck of the original head set in smaller type.

Freak Head.— Special type of head used over freakish news stories.

Sub-head.— A head, usually one line, placed within the text of the story to avoid the monotony of an unbroken front of type. Most newspapers use sub-heads in stories running half a column or more. " Two sub-heads or none " is the rule in some offices. A sub-head is based on the paragraph immediately following.


Type, in the printer's vernacular, is upper case (capital letters) and lower case (small letters). A word that is capitalized is said to go up. A word not capitalized is put down. When both capitals and small letters are used in a line, it is said to be in caps and lower case (abbreviated 1. c.). A line set in capitals is all caps.

The general practice is to capitalize all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and interjections in the head, as in the title of a book or play. This is a detail left to the compositor, who is guided by the newspaper's typographical style.

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