How to create a Strong Headline

If you want to draw readers to a story, you need to make them want to choose it from a sea of other options. A strong headline is your best shot to do that. You want your headline to entice the reader and clearly communicate what the story is about — all without sounding too cookie cutter and without veering into clickbait. That can be a fine line to walk, but it’s important to find the balance.

Below, I’ve gathered some examples of strong headlines. I’ve tried to break them out into categories for some kind of framework, but it’s not an exact science here — the main thing they all have in common is that they are clear, direct, assertive, and focused on what is most interesting.


Best when you’re giving a fresh lens to a current trend, moment, or interest. This construction often takes the form of what/why/how because it’s about offering an explanation.

Note: The article on the Black Death came out during the coronavirus pandemic when the parallels to previous pandemics were high interest and the connection was already on readers’ minds. Because the connection was known, we didn’t need to spell it out in the headline. But if you’re looking back at history and the relevance is less obvious, you might need to make that connection for the reader. Just make sure they can see why your story is relevant to them now.

Bold declaration

Best when you have a strong, possibly controversial thesis. The key here is to go all the way and make the bold claim without hedging, as long as your article backs up that claim.

Descriptive teaser

Best when you’re diving into a fascinating, untold, general interest story. Focus on the most interesting core of the story, and don’t get bogged down in details. This can also be a personal story, and in those cases, focus on what makes your story noteworthy or different.

Note: ‘The Absurd Story Behind China’s Biggest Bank Robbery’ was originally titled ‘Jackpot’ and still has that title onsite. For broader online distribution, that wasn’t clear enough for people to understand what the story was about, so we changed the display hed to tease the story itself.


Best when you are giving direct advice or information. These are popular but common, so giving your headline a little voice (without sacrificing clarity) can help differentiate your story. These often use a “how to” or list construction since that’s an easy way to clearly show what people will learn.


Best when there’s a short, clear quote that hits right at the emotional core of the article and tells you exactly what it’s about. It’s rare that you get the perfect quote, so use sparingly, but it’s powerful when you do.

A note on coining terms

If you’re identifying a feeling or phenomenon that hasn’t been identified before, then sometimes coining a term can help make it stickier and more understandable. You have to be careful putting an unfamiliar term in the headline because it can be confusing, but it works in cases where the term itself is immediately understandable and the headline includes enough context to make it clear. For example:

Some quick tips

  • If you’re unsure if the headline is clear, share only the headline with someone who hasn’t read the story and ask what they think it’s about.
  • Look at what people are saying when they share the article if you’re not sure you’ve captured what your audience thinks is most interesting.
  • This headline capitalization tool is an easy way to make sure you’re using proper headline caps.

Whenever an editor gets stuck on a headline, I pause the brainstorming process and ask them to just describe to me, as themselves: What is this story about?

Coming back to that question and answering it aloud is especially helpful if the headline is unclear or jargony, or if it’s bloated with too many details. You wrote the story about something, and you had a reason for writing it, so those are your anchors if you’re ever unsure of the headline.

How to Write a Headline

Insights from Medium’s editorial team

A sign with a “?” and lights all around it and arms and legs stands radiant.
Illustration: Kawandeep Virdee

Your headline is the first impression of your story. Writing a great headline can be the difference between a handful of reads or orders of magnitude more. It can mean the difference between reliably growing an audience or losing integrity. Your job is to convince the reader to dive into your story, and then you must deliver. “When someone is trying to decide if they want to read a story, you don’t want them asking themselves: What does this headline mean? What is this story about? Why is this relevant? What will I learn?” shares

, editorial director of growth at Medium. “You want the headline itself to be so clear that the only thing they need to ask themselves is: Am I interested in this story?”

In this guide, we’ll cover common mistakes and the best practices to strive for. We end with a few examples to help make this all more clear.

What a great headline looks like

The job of a headline is to merchandise your story and clearly convey what the story is about. Give the reader context about the story, and help them decide if it is worth reading. To make this decision, the reader needs to know what the story is about, and why it matters now. Make sure your headline addresses these questions. Strive for clarity here.

You want the headline itself to be so clear that the only thing they need to ask themselves is: Am I interested in this story?

Remember that the reader has not yet read the story. “When you’re writing headlines, step outside yourself to imagine seeing the headline with none of that context,” Rawls highlights. “Make sure that what’s clear to you about the story you wanted to tell and why it matters comes through clearly in the headline.” It can be helpful to share the headline with a few writing peers and see what they think the story is about.

Principles to consider in writing your headline

  • Be direct. Your story is among many a reader is browsing. Be straightforward in what it is about.
  • Use conventional language. Avoid jargon, and think of what makes sense in casual conversation. Know the language that your audience is familiar with.
  • Focus on what’s interesting. Be straightforward about why a reader should read the article. Don’t bury or hide this.
  • Deliver on your promises. You’re building a relationship with your readers. The headline sets the expectations, and the story must deliver on that.

Guiding questions to consider in writing your headline

  • Could the headline be clearer?
  • Is the headline specific enough?
  • Does the tone reflect the voice or point of view of the article?
  • How might the headline convey what is unique about the story?
  • Is the headline clear and honest about what the story offers the reader?

You should use both a headline and a subheadline. Use title case in your headlines and sentence case in your subheadlines. Make sure to format your header as well.

What to avoid in writing a headline

A few simple qualities to check at the start: don’t use all caps, avoid typos, don’t make the headlines links, and avoid profanity. These are part of the curation guidelines.

It can be tempting to appeal to base instincts to get clicks. You may want to use exaggeration or mystery for a click. This is clickbait. You’ve seen this technique used for stories, and it might seem appealing. The issue with these methods is they may leave the reader wondering if what they read was actually worth reading. In the short term this may help drive traffic, but in the long term it undermines your integrity as a writer. It degrades the experience for the reader. Exercise caution with particularly bold, hyperbolic, absolutist, or deliberately provocative claims in your headlines. If the headline exploits the readers’ emotions and insecurities, it is likely clickbait.

You may want to be poetic, clever, or artistic in the title. The challenge with crafting a title this way is that it becomes opaque. It’s also much easier to write a bad title when striving for something poetic or clever than if you’re going for clarity. In most cases, the reader won’t click to find out more because they didn’t understand what the story was about in the first place. If you want to be poetic or clever in your headline, follow it up with a strong subheadline.

Avoid obvious questions as a headline. Instead, see if there is a way to highlight the tension that the story conveys. Note that if a reader doesn’t share this question, they’ll skip over the piece. Also note that even if they do, they might skim the piece to find the answer, and leave.

Avoid biases in the title. “Be aware of who is in the room writing the headline and what the limits of their perspective might be,” shares Rawls. Often biases will show up in the adjectives you use, so double-check the ones you use, and consider what they may unintentionally express.

If you find it challenging to come up with a clear headline, this might say something about the piece itself. Take a look at it again. It may lack focus. Is it clear what your story is about? Might it be helpful to restructure it, or add a stronger throughline? For this reason, it is useful to articulate a working headline early on.


Needs improvement

“The Secret to Finding Your Meaning in Life (Hint: It’s Not What You Think)”

There is an intentional curiosity gap here. The title could more directly reflect the skills encouraged in the article.

Needs improvement

“10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your Love Life”

This exploits possible insecurities of the reader. It also overpromises a quick fix while giving a vague sense of solutions. What is the core of the advice given? The headline should be more direct and specific.

Needs improvement

“Soft Drinks and Health and Wellness Can Coexist in the U.S. Alcohol Space.”

This headline can be clearer and streamlined. The phrase “alcohol space” is confusing.


“How to Talk to an Employee Obsessed With Promotion.”

This headline is focused, direct, and specific. You know what you’ll get from reading this story.


“This Terrifying Chart Helps Me Get Things Done”

Does the story deliver on the promise? This might seem a bit over the top, but the chart it describes is a lifespan chart that highlights how finite life is. Mortality can be terrifying.

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