- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
By Neel V. Patel / 5 minute read
“The headline is the most important bit you’ll be writing,” Niall Firth of MIT Technology Review advises editors. “You can put months and months of work into a really in-depth story, but if no one reads it because the headline is boring, you’ve wasted all that time.”
Headline writing can feel akin to marketing or salesmanship. If that’s your view, get over it. Journalists need to embrace that work and learn to be better at it, Firth says. “This is how you get people to see the amazing work you’ve done. You’ve got to sell it.”
Rachel Feltman from Popular Science agrees that editors should not worry over whether something reads like clickbait. “A headline is only clickbait if it promises something that’s not in the story,” she says. “If it’s just goofy and fun, and that makes someone click and it’s not wrong — that’s a good headline.”
As with most other things in journalism, there is no one correct approach to writing headlines. But there are a few broad guidelines:
- Keep headlines short and succinct. Brevity sells. This can sometimes be trickier for popular-science stories than for other topics — often you’re dealing with complex ideas that may need greater explanation or context. If you’re not able to come up with a brief selling point, you may want to rethink the direction of the headline entirely.
- Don’t feel the need to summarize the whole story. A headline is supposed to sell the reader on reading the story, but it shouldn’t just give everything away. Think of a headline like a movie trailer — it should present something that’s appealing enough for the reader to pay for a ticket.
- Find interesting details. A headline does not necessarily need to sell the reader on the main thrust of the story. Sometimes it can simply be about an enticing detail. Karen Kaplan of The Los Angeles Times cites one recent story she published about the discovery of a 330-million-year-old fossil unearthed in Montana. The headline: “Scientists find octopus ancestor that predates dinosaurs and name it after President Biden.” The Biden hook is a minor part of the story, but it’s unusual enough that even casual readers are likely to start reading.
- Avoid “Scientists Say.” Such a headline can feel overdone. Even worse is the “Science Says …” construction. Scientists are not a monolith, and science is not a singular institution. Yasmin Tayag notes that she once worked on a video at Inverse titled “How Big Genitals Can Lead to Extinction, According to Science.” A stronger headline, she now thinks, would have been: “Big Genitals Can Lead to Extinction.”
- Conflict draws interest. Conflict is a source of drama and is a selling point in any story. Michael Roston, a science editor at The New York Times, suggests centering a conflict in the headline itself. He cites a 2018 story, “Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure,” as an example that is both direct and humorous. “The fact that researchers are fighting over the nature of that whole concept of pleasure was sort of this amusing idea,” he says. “Emphasizing the humor around these stories can be a valuable way to hook people and orient them towards thinking that it’s something they might actually care about.”
- Humor sells: The worst thing a popular-science story can do is make readers feel as if they’re back in science class. Humor — when appropriate for the subject matter — can be an easy way to minimize feelings of intimidation and brighten the mood, such as the masterful: “When an Eel Climbs a Ramp to Eat Squid From a Clamp, That’s a Moray,” as one recent New York Times headline read.
One thing that’s enjoyable about popular-science journalism is the ability to imbue stories with a sense of awe, Roston says. “One thing I’m always thinking about with headlines is, ‘How do you sort of conjure or inspire a sense of wonder that makes the reader want to know more?’” These are opportunities to deploy words like “mystery” or “enigma,” to convey there is something unexpected for readers to behold.
Firth suggests also thinking about headlines in the context of social media. Is there a tweet you had in mind for sharing the story? Perhaps some version could stand up as the headline itself. “Often we will write complicated headlines and then tweet it out in lay speak, which is far more engaging,” he says. “And you can actually just combine those two things.”
A common trait in popular-science headlines is the use of modal verbs, like “could,” “can,” “might,” and “may.” They tease the possibility of a larger implication but stop short of saying something is definitively the case. There are countless examples at The Daily Beast. (“These Solar Cells Can Solve Nighttime Electricity Woes”; “We Could Use Ultrasound to Command Bacteria to Nuke Tumors”; etc.)
It may seem that editors rely too much on such words, but they are better than overpromising. A few years ago, as a freelancer, I wrote a story for Slate that used the headline “Lifting the Ban on Elephant Trophies Will Probably Help Save Elephants.” The point of the story was that opposition to the Trump administration’s lifting the ban on such imports ignored some nuances of conservation science. However, “probably help” was poor framing for this story, and not something the rest of the piece could support. “Could” or “might” would have been more appropriate. I still regret that headline, which elicited quite the negative reaction among many conservationists.
Of course, other standard headline guidance applies to science stories. Tayag advises making headlines active, using strong verbs when possible. “It’s easy to write a very boring science headline, saying ‘Study Says X.’” Instead, pick words indicating the effort that went into the findings: “discovery,” “unraveling,” “identification,” “digging,” etc.
Headlines also work best when they match the way people talk in the real world. Firth advises editors to stay clear of dependent clauses or awkward constructions. Sometimes the use of a colon can help to keep things concise, but if you’re not constrained for space, it’s best to avoid introducing your subject that way.
What do you think of question headlines? You probably know they are polarizing. Some editors are okay with them; others think they stink of clickbait and avoid them. Firth argues that they are sometimes appropriate — if the question is the story itself. I thought I did a decent job of this with a story from 2016 for Inverse, about the search for extraterrestrial life: “What if we haven’t found aliens because they’re extinct?” That question was the focus of the research being explored.
Curiosity gaps are a staple of digital journalism. But “too much of a curiosity gap will leave people feeling cold,” says Firth.
I remember experiencing this with a story I wrote for Wired in 2015 during a reporting fellowship. It was about the vagus nerve — infamous among science-and-health reporters for coverage of its seemingly limitless potential for improving human health. My headline actually read: “From Obesity to Epilepsy, One Nerve May Lead to Many Cures.” Sounds enticing, no? And while the story didn’t report anything inaccurately, it did emphasize how much we don’t know yet and why we need to be cautious — effectively undermining the headline with paragraph after paragraph. In retrospect, the story should have gotten a different headline, one that didn’t suggest the vagus nerve held such tangible promise. Or the story should have been rewritten with a different framing altogether.
Feltman offers one more guiding principle: “The main advice I give to people is, be open to trying any construction, and never overuse any construction.”