How to Write Headlines and Decks (Heds and Deks)

The hardest-working words need the most space and the best place, because they are the first line of defense against an ambivalent reader

If I were a pile of words, I would like to be a hed and dek because not only do they get the best seat in the house, and have the most responsibility, but they get to ignore some rules of punctuation and grammar along the way. Not that I am against rules of grammar and punctuation, but a license to break the rules is appealing to me. Heds and Deks are the 007 of the word kingdom.

With this extrordinary power comes great responsibiliy. If the hed and dek fail, the whole article pays the price. And because you wrote them, you have just limited your ability to get a raise. But worse, you have hidden information from people who need it.

There is a craft and an art to writing headlines—as editors and journalists, we get paid for the craft — putting together the structure of what information needs to be conveyed. The art is what we do to keep our jobs interesting — looking for the right words to speak to just the right audience, tying the topic to cultural icons of the audience. Speaking to the audience, rather than fumbling your way through an incomprehensible hed and dek.

Write the structure first, then have some fun with it, thinking about what will appeal to your readers.

“There are two kinds of headline, those that are direct and tell you what you’re going to get, and those that don’t. We like the first kind.”

—John Lively began his career with Taunton Press as an assistant editor at Fine Woodworking magazine and retired as the President and CEO.

As soon as you master the basics of writing heds and deks, you’ll find heds and deks a lot easier to write because the starting point will be well-crafted text. Any time spent thinking about it will yield direct improvement in the hed and dek. And it is more fun writing, too.

It is like playing music: if you have the scales memorized, then improvisation is easy and fun. If the scales are a mystery, then improvisation is hard, awkward, embarassing, and hard to listen to.

Web heds and deks have the added element of search engine optimization, but that is a subject for another article.

The three Ingredients of a well-crafted headline

* Most important is clarity. The headline should convey the message and increase the expectations of the reader.

* Also important is that the headline be informative. It should focus the subject. It should be substantive.

* Third, headlines should be engaging. But rhetorical engagement needs to be appropriate. Frivolity in a headline indicates that the article is frivolous.

You can focus a subject and give rhetorical energy by playing with the verbs. Use finite verbs (avoid gerunds if possible). An example is a Fine Woodworking article about building an arts-and-crafts sideboard that requires only three types of joinery:

Three Simple Joints __________ an Arts & Crafts Sideboard

This verb is your opportunity to be artistic; play around with your opportunities here:

Create, define, destroy, mimic, water down, beef up, prostitute, inaugurate, revitalize, exaggerate, simplify, dumb-down…

the possibilities are almost endless, but remember: clarity is king (or queen as the case may be).

DEKs are like the viewfinder on a camera: where you stop the camera is the HED, where you zoom, crop, and focus is the DEK.

The two main functions of the DEK are to crop and focus the headline. They can be wordier than headlines and they should hint at what the reader will get in the article.

More and more, Heds, deks, and ledes need to attract readers beyond traditional newsstands. They also need to help readers find articles on the web. And as publishers put more magazine articles into an online archive, magazine heds, deks, and ledes will need to be Google-friendly (more on writing for the web later).

Next up: How to Write a Good Lede


3 thoughts on “How to Write Headlines and Decks (Heds and Deks)

  1. Excellent advice. Passed it on to my colleagues who still title their slides “3rd Quarter Results” instead of “Coffee profits triple. Tea stronger.”


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