How to Format Reader-Friendly Headlines
The headline of a piece of content is the reader’s invitation, so make it inviting in form as well as content. Using all capital letters is overbearing; choose between headline style (capitalizing initial letters only in words representing major parts of speech) or sentence style (initial caps only for the first word and proper nouns). Using uppercase initial letters in every word is not advisable, because words of one to three letters can look awkward when formatted that way.
Headlines should be noticeably larger than the running text (the main body of copy) and other headings but not so large that they are out of proportion to them. (A range of two to five times the size of the running text is best.) Notice how newspapers and magazines use especially large headlines only for highly significant or catastrophic events.
The headline font should be different than that of the running text, and I recommend reversing the serif/sans serif (“no serif”) style as well. (Serifs are appendages that extend the strokes on some letters; the headline and running-text font on this site has almost no serifs — only the letter t has a “foot” — while the lettering in the site’s text ads, resembling the type in most newspapers, is serif.) Notice also how the headline type’s color differs from the black type of the running text and matches the site’s color scheme.
For an organization’s publications (reports, print and email newsletters, etc.) or for organizational or individual websites, it’s best to create a template in which headlines are always the same font, font style, and color. Various articles can have headlines with different point sizes (generally, the larger the article, and the higher it appears on the page, the larger the headline’s point size should be), but if every issue of your newsletter or every page on your website has the same layout, maintain consistency across iterations.
Print publications have traditionally utilized one of three approaches for wording headlines to draw readers in: what I call the statement headline, the phrase headline, and the concept headline. The statement headline, employed in news articles and on many content websites, is formatted like a sentence and straightforwardly tells readers what to expect (“Grammar Guru Offers Advice on Formatting Headlines”).
The second style, also used widely in print and online journalism (especially editorials, features, and how-to articles) and on the Internet, is an incomplete sentence that nevertheless conveys the gist of the content to follow (“How to Format Reader-Friendly Headlines”).
The third format uses wordplay to evoke the subject of the material below the headline while entertaining the reader (“Tips for Top Type”). It’s the most creative alternative, and therefore my favorite, but it should be used with caution in creating online headlines because it’s not as search friendly as the other methods (though my example does include two keywords).
It’s fine to mix and match these styles in one publication or on one website, but keep the content type and the tone of the piece in mind when choosing from among them.
For more tips on how to craft headlines, go to this post. Read this post instead for general advice on creating inviting Web sites. I’ll follow up with a piece about other display type (subheads and captions) next week.