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The worst headlines in history will destroy your faith in humanity

December 9, 2013

tabloid headlines

Photo: Stephen Dann (CC)

Read any good headlines lately? It’s more likely you’ve clicked on a few provocative — if ultimately, unfulfilling — ones out of curiosity.

I posted today’s headlines from a few of the high-traffic sites.


  • How A Small-Time Marijuana Arrest Has Devastated A Great Teacher’s Life
  • Lady Gaga Is A Human Christmas Tree
  • 21 Signs You Had A Skater Phase
  • Tech Giants Launch Group Aimed At Government Surveillance Reform
  • The First Real Trailer For “Sherlock” Season 3 Dropped

Huffington Post

  • Congress Ready To Extend Ban On Plastic Firearms
  • Economy on the Mend: Good News or Bad News?
  • Leaked Docs: White House Seeking Radical New Political Powers For Corporations
  • Sarah Silverman: ‘I Think Vaginas Really, Really Scare People’


  • A 15-Year-Old Ad About Racism Is A Great Reminder Of The Power We All Have To Promote Justice
  • ‘How Old Are You’ Is The Simplest Question Ever. So Why’d It Ruin An 11-Year-Old’s Life?
  • Think You Know What ‘Fat’ Means? You Should Listen To This Dude’s Definition.
  • Did That Really Just Happen? Yep. This Guy Pulled Down His Pants, On Stage, During His TED Talk.
  • One Singer’s Response To A Huge Promise Being Broken

Several traits help these headlines stand out: shock, celebrity, surprise. Many of the headlines are paired with thumbnails to help drive home the message.

The headline arms race has escalated dramatically during the digital age for several reasons. For starters, competition for attention has increased exponentially. We started battling in RSS feed readers, and now we demand clicks next to millions of tweets and Facebook updates.

Another reason headlines have become punchier is better metrics. We know instantly what works and tailor our style accordingly. It’s why you can out-bait the baiters with the Clickbait Headline Generator and the Upworthy Generator.

And we’re seeing intense focus on areas of coverage that continue to drive traffic: human interest, politics, gossip. These topics can lend themselves to strong headlines.

You don’t have to go overboard in writing your headlines and tweets. While a little sex appeal can spice up drab teases, I usually recommend a crash course in CNN headline writing.

Visit the CNN home page regularly to see stories with headlines and rewritten headlines every hour. Today’s sampling:

  • NEW 5 things for your ‘New Day’
  • Ugly scene at Brazilian soccer match
  • Fan fighting turns bloody
  • Paul Walker honored with car show
  • Terror threat spreads like ‘wildfire’
  • Campus cop shoots, kills student
  • Cops: Teens let friend drive drunk
  • 91 world leaders to honor Mandela
  • Bride’s pushed-off-cliff trial begins
  • Sources: Fraud ring also spied
  • Tech giants demand spying reforms
  • Iconic statue hacked to pieces

Every headline is a five- or six-word promise. Note how succinctly each story captures the one critical element in its wording.

You might click something out of curiosity. They’re seemingly irresistible.

Writing strong headlines does more than generate traffic. It makes for easier promotion. It helps you narrow the scope of your post. It develops your writing skills, as you write for brevity and impact. And it develops your editing skills, as you dump your first draft to craft the perfect hed.

Study those headlines. Then work toward making yours as fantastically, frightfully, shockingly stupendous.

• • •

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