University of Wisconsin Oshkosh professor, Vince Filak, taught a session on the art and importance of writing good headlines to high school students attending the NEWSPA conference.
With the session titled “Writing Headlines, Not Punchlines,” Filak spoke to the students about producing headlines that won’t cause confusion or misunderstandings.
“What I keep telling students is, tell me what you want to tell me very quickly,” Filak said.
The small space allowed for headlines and the lack of sentence structure within it, are challenges to writing a good headline.
“I don’t always look at success, I look at times of avoiding failure,” Filak said. “I think to myself ‘what could possibly go wrong within this space?’ and how do I avoid it?”
Spellcheck, bad spacing, and factual errors can all get journalists in trouble within a headline.
Headlines can be a frustrating aspect to the writing process for journalists, and Filak warned students that sloppiness can hurt their headline writing.
“Headlines go wrong when people say: ‘I’ll fix it later,’” Filak said. “The key is to never write something that you wouldn’t let your mother read, because things can get out without you knowing.”
Filak spoke about the ever-changing online environment that can present both opportunities and pitfalls for journalists today.
“It’s a lot easier, in some ways, and a lot more difficult in others,” Filak said. “You have more space, but the more words you put in a newspaper headline, a lot of people only read the first three words and the last three words, and if your middle is full of all sorts of important stuff, it can get lost,”
While Filak spent much of his time warning students about the dangers and possible embarrassment that could come from writing headlines, he acknowledges the value of this skill.
“I think headline writing in a lot of ways is a lost art,” Filak said. “Sure, you can make a headline bigger or smaller, but you have to think: ‘is this headline doing anything?’”