Home Introduction to journalism HEADLINE WRITING IN JOURNALISM


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This unit is about headline writing. Practical experience on casting headlines is gained from the exercises provided at the end of the unit. The unit also gives a detailed appreciation of functions, schedule, guides and writing final copy of the headline.


On successful completion of this unit you should be able to:

  1. Define the headline
  2. Explain the function of Headline in journalism practice 
  3.  Identify the basic requirements for casting good Headlines 
  4.  Write headlines for select stories 


3.1 Headline Writing Defined

Any single line or collection of display type that precedes a story and summarizes or introduces it can be called a headline. Such a headline has the following attributes.

  1.  A headline is a sentence built around action verb. It distinguishes a headline from a binder or label head. e.g., full text of Presidential broadcast; INEC Boss speaks on Transition Programme. The first is a label head, the second is a typical headline. 
  2.  A headline must be adjusted to a predetermined length and number of sentence and characters respectively.
  3. A headline is fashioned to save space. This, the headline writer does by omitting articles (i.e. the) and other unnecessary encumbrances, thereby leaving room for less detail in the restricted space. 
  4.  A good headline uses a language symbols, singly and in groups, to convey or maximise meaning. Articles are hardly in use while commas take the place of “and “in most cases.
  5.  A headline uses the present tense to convey immediacy and to save space. Often the present tense is shorter than the past with few exceptions.
The generic term, ‘headline’ comprises many specified terms including: jump heads, kickers and sub- heads. They should not be confused with outlines, captions and binders. A binder or label head is a display line identifying but not summarizing special material not handled as a news story.

The binder identifies the content of the material but does not summarize the content of the message. It also does not tell what the President says or what happens. Binders are also used over tabular matter accompanying a related news story.

3.2 Functions of the Headline

  1. The headline performs various functions, one of which is to index the news by stating plainly what the story contains so as to save the reader’s time in finding the aspect of the news that interest him most.
  2.  The headline tells the news to the reader by way of conveying mandatorily the accurate information.
  3.  Again, it conveys the relative significance of the news as expressed in terms of type display through the use of type size and weight. 
  4.  Headline convey to the reader the relative seriousness of the news using type families such as italics and other decorative typographical devices like dashes, stars, boxes etc. Some of these are indicative of the fact that certain stories are meant for its entertainment rather than its significance.value
  5.  The headline beautifies the newspaper and makes it attractive. In all ramifications, the primary function of any headline is essentially to make room for good and balance page make –up. Such headline accompanied with their variety in size and typefaces do a lot to make modern newspaper pages quite attractive. For instance, a five column page of solid body type looks uninterestingly grey –colourless as can easily be seen in the Nigerian early newspapers and as against the modern newspapers. Present day headlines introduce contrast by bringing side by side, black type and white space as a relief to the dull grey of body type. If placed properly, headlines bring about balance, symmetry, and typographical beauty to a well- planned page.
  6.  Headlines give the newspaper character and stability through consistent use of familiar headline structure thereby giving a newspaper the relatively familiar and welcome personality. While some newspapers use screaming headlines, other are more gentle and less shouting in their use of headlines. 
  7. Headlines to some degree are often employed to sell newspapers on the newsstand. This is true of catchy headlines.

3.3 Headline Schedule/Headline Writing

The headline schedule is a sample of headlines used by a newspaper, It shows the point size, types and type faces available and particular the precise form they must take. Every newspaper has its own headline schedule as distinct from others. It represents the character of the paper and forms a major distinguishing factor in comparing various newspapers.  Headline writing does not and should not use a language of its own. Instead it must use language symbols common to people and which they must understand. The writer must take into consideration the exact and special meaning respectively in the light of their immediate meaning. Some of the basic skills that lead to the success of headline writing are:

  1. Accurate perception of the story. A headline writer must be able to recognize what parts of the story are newsworthy, dramatic, and significant. 
  2. A vocabulary that is both broad and deep is necessary for the headline writer’s task. The layman’s vocabulary is not enough for accomplishing such task. Constructing sentences for headline writing requires not just a vocabulary of multi meaning that may or may not be used synonymously. Viewed closely, synonym would imply word of the same meaning as another in the same language but often with different implications and associations. 
  3.  A sharp sense of sentence structure. The headline writer depends on flexibility not only in choice of words but also in choice of sentence structure so that the writer can switch word order quickly without alerting meaning. Sentences take many structures and headlines are most notable for that. 
  4. A keen eye for ambiguity. The headline writer must review his writing endlessly to detect ambiguity. He should be able to put himself in the place of many potential readers. This is because what is meaningful and clear to him may not be clear and meaningful to others. 

3.4 Guides for Headline Writing

Tell the story’s essentials. In headline writing, the writer is expected to tell the essentials just as the lead story does since most headlines are based on the lead. This is however not a rule but merely. The

lead of a straight news story often summarizes the essential facts. Headlines by extension must do the same. The implication therefore is that the headline writer usually finds his best material on which to peg the headline at the top of the story otherwise called the lead. The parts of the lead that suits headline treatment are those that tell the main aspect of the story clearly and interestingly. It may be

noteworthy to point out that in some cases the lead paragraph may be lacking in substance as the larger story may be buried in specified details contained in the body of the story. the

  1. Get the facts straight. Getting at the heart of the story is a not a simple task as most people would think. Complex news stories bothering on public affairs keep headline writers constantly on their toes as they struggle to tell the stories in a restricted space and in an understandable term. Such stories put headline writers on high jump trying to exempt themselves from the tasks. 
  2. Put the key facts at the top deck. Should the headline be of two desks, the most important one would be at the top to be followed by the less important headline. This is done for the purposes of emphasis. 
  3.  Marshall the facts in sentence form. The writer can narrow the headline down by removing non-essential words. The point has since been made that headline are skeletonized sentences. This suggests dropping articles and sometimes substituting a comma for ‘and’. In most cases, it goes to the extent of doing without non modifiers including personal pronouns. Skeletonizing however does essential not mean merely assembly unrelated and uncoordinated words that make virtually no meaning. 
  4. Build around a strong verb. Good headline writers choose vigorous, active, positive as well as colourful words. The writers know that the ideas in the headline are propelled by the verb. Though all the words that come from the headline are expectedly selected with care, the verb is the key to the headline. Rich in vocabulary and an ear for words are invaluable assets to a headline writer who, as a matter of fact should listen to what he writes. Crowell (1969:85) provides some of the effective verbal components, thus.

.3.5 Headline Counts

The essence of headline counting is to determine the amount of space tobe earmarked for the headline in page planning. It also helps to determine the length of each deck of the headline. The decks in the headline should not vary more than two units in length. Most newspapermen count headline by the unit. Horizontal space in newspaper is always measured in pica, points and units while depth is measured in inches. To determine the space for a headline therefore, the counting of the head has to be done by counting the total number of units for all the letters and space between words in the headline.
As pointed out by Crowell (1969) the general rule to obtain a dependable line count is to count the heads as follows:

Cap M Q W
Cap I J
 ½ (1)
All other caps
Lower case m w
Lowercase f l i r t j ½ 
All other lower case letters 1
Figure 1
Other figures
 1 ½
S # % ? &
– (Dash)
Space between words ½ 

It should be pointed out that while some authors say that the unit for uppercase I and J should be ½ , others say it should be I.

In the headline count, certain basic data are required and must be known by the person counting the headline before he could arrive at the correct answer. The data include;

  1. the maximum unit count per line 
  2. the number of decks in the headline to be cast and
  3. the type of letters (whether uppercase or lowercase or a combination of both) to be used in casting the headline. 

Whether to cast the headline in uppercase or lowercase or combination of both caps and lowercase is a decision the headline caster has to make. The same thing applies to the number of decks the headline must be counted in line with the units already universally assigned to each letter (or figure, space, symbols or punctuation marks) whether set in uppercase or lowercase.  The maximum unit count per line could be arrived at by measuring the length of space or column that the headline would cover in units. That is, if the head is to be placed on a three column story, the length of the three column measured horizontally in units would definitely give you the maximum unit count per line for the headline. The following data of measuring space horizontally in page planning may be used:

1 inch =  72 points
1 pica =  12 points
1 inch =  6 picas
1 unit =  1 9/10 picas (about 2 picas)

The first rule in the headline count is that no line in the headline must exceed the maximum unit count for the longest deck in the headline. For example, if the maximum unit for a particular head is 20 (i.e. 20 units), no line in the headline must exceed 20 units precisely because that is the total length of space any deck in the headline horizontally.
could go As earlier pointed out, any variation among the decks of the head must not be more than two units in length. That is, if the maximum unit count per line is 20, any line of the headline should not be shorter than 18 units. If it is a headline of three decks, the fist deck could be 20 while

the last two could be either 20, 19 ½ or 18 units.

Typical Assignments on Headline Count with Necessary Data:

(1) Write a headline of 2 – 18 – 1 in lowercase (maximum unit count 
per line:   21½) on the lead below:

“Top seed David Imonitie came back from a set down to outstroke rival 
Abubakar Sadiq 4  –  6, 6 – 4, 6 – 4 last night to become the  new All-
Nigeria men’s Lawn Tennis singles champion”.

(a) Answer:
1   m  o n i t i e i s n
e      w

1 1½    l I ½  ½  ½  1½ ½  ½   ½  l
e     w
l     1½   ½ 

c  h a m p i o n
l l l 1½  1½   1 1 = 21½ 

 s     N e w
1  ½    1½  1 1½  = 6½  Units

P r e s I d e n t
1½  ½  1 1 ½  1 1 1 ½     =    8 

(2) Write headline  of 2-24-2 in uppercase  (maximum unit count per 
line: 26) on the lead below:
“The   International   Monetary   Fund   (IMF)   has   revealed   that 
various governments throughout the world are finding it difficult 
to control their expenses, thereby recording more deficit”.


2 1½ 1½   1½ 1½   ½ 

G      O   V       E     RN M E N T     S
1½  1½  1½   1½  1½   1½   2 1½   1½   1½     1½ 
=25 Units 

R E C O R D   M O     R     E
1½   1½   1½   1½   1½   1½   ½   2 1½  1½  1½   ½ 

1½   1½   1½
1 1½
1 1½
=  26 Units

Experience, people say, is the best teacher. No one can be perfect in headline casting or headline counting without trial and error as well as many years of practical experience.

3.6 Headline Order and Headline Copy

The headline order is always stated on the headline copy, which usually a small clean sheet of paper. Each headline on a page must get is its own separate head copy. The headline order usually tells three things. First, it tells the number of columns in which the head is to be set. Second, it tells the size of the head. And thirdly, it tells the number of lines. e.g. 2-30-2 means two columns of 30 points in two lines while 2-42-3 means two columns of 42 points in three lines. Heads to be set in all capitals must be written in all capital letters on the

headline copy while those to be set in capitals and small letters written in upper case and lower case. Those to be set in lower case must are be written in small letters except the first letter of the head and the first letter of each proper noun, e.g.

Slug: war Page: 3             Edition:  1
Size: 3-40-2
Size:  3-4-2
Regean Warns Mideast Of General War

Slug:  Duty     Page: 2
Edition: 2
Size: 2 – 40 – 1

Slug: accident   Page: 5       Edition: 2
Size: 2 – 30 – 2
Five girls die in road crash


The job of casting appropriate headlines is another specialised area of news writing that demands technical skill in perception of the story and in the use of language. It is the basic job of the sub-editor.


In this unit, you have learnt that:

  1.  Headline summarizes the story in a sentence.
  2.  Writers choose vigorous, active, positive as well as colourful words. 
  3. Headline counting is essential to determine the amount of space to be earmarked for the headline in page planning.
  4. There is headline order, and, each headline on a page must get its own separate head copy.


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