By Ann Wylie
“A story should be a verb, not a noun.”
— Byron Dobell, former editor of Esquire
And when it comes to your headline, the verb is the story. The sexier the verb, the sexier the story. That’s why I love the cheeky verb in this headline, from Vitaminwater: “Spank those naughty little oxidants.”
Here are five ways to verbify your own headlines to make them stronger and more stimulating:
1. Choose dynamic verbs.
If a story is a verb, then something should be happening here. And your headline should capture that action. Chris Smith, the brilliant copyediting guru at Entergy Corp., reminds us — in haiku, no less — of what happens when we neglect our verbs:
“Readers stayed away.
Did your headline have a verb?
“I didn’t think so.”
2. Think action.
So use athletic verbs. Model the action words in these two Wall Street Journal heads:
- Stocks Roar Back Late in Day
- Medicare Flip-Flop Roils Elderly
Use online tools like Visual Thesaurus to find the most muscular verb for your story.
3. Avoid couch potato verbs.
Reach beyond lethargic verbs like:
And the worst headline verb ever? Announces.
Think about it: If the verb is the story, and your verb is “announces,” you’re making the announcement of the news — and not the news itself — the story.
4. Don’t drop the verb.
For gosh sakes, don’t commit verbicide. This headline got passed through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times before publication:
Investing to stay ahead of growing demand
for wireless calling and data services
Hint: If you can find an “ing” anywhere in your headline, you need to write another headline.
5. Pass this test.
Finally, to make sure your verb is stimulating, ask:
- Is the verb enticing? Does it telegraph that something interesting is happening here?
- Is it the second or third word in the headline, or is it buried behind a nine-word product name or the names of each of your company’s 17 project partners?
- Is it in the active voice? The present or future tense?
If you can answer “yes” to each of these questions, your verb — and the story itself — are probably strong and stimulating.
WANT TO LEARN MORE about writing better copy? See Ann Wylie on May 15, when she presents her “Catch Your Readers” workshop. Whether you’ve been writing for one year or 25, this half-day workshop is a great opportunity to learn from Ann.
About the author
Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com. Get FREE writing tips at Bit.ly/WylieTips. Get more than 2,000 writing tipsheets at RevUpReadership.com.
Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.