Is this any way to write a headline?

Allow me to pose a question: Do headlines that ask something a good idea?

Poynter thinks so. Sara Quinn, who is on the faculty there, says asking a question is a way to make a headline more engaging. My supervisors during my News & Observer days had other ideas. The directive there was to avoid question headlines — we should tell, not ask.

I asked award-winning headline writer Jim Thomsen what he thought of question headlines. He is a copy editor at The Kitsap Sun in Washington state and a board member at the American Copy Editors Society. (Thomsen also blogs.) Here is his response via Facebook:

As we look for new ways to invite readers to buy our newspapers and read our Web sites, I think we need to embrace new ways to bring them into the conversations that newspapers should be inspiring.

And what better way to start a conversation than to ask a question? It got me to realizing that most stories I read prompt more questions than they answer.

And that, I think is the nature of news: Every newspaper, every day, predominantly publishes stories about people considering something, investigating something, studying something, about to make a decision on something.

Rarely are stories so factually black-and-white as to anticipate and answer every question a reader would reasonably have.

Why not write headlines that reflect that?

Thomsen makes a compelling case. What do you think?



  1. As a Belgian reader,I think that a title asking a question is a good idea.When I buy a newspaper or a magazine,I don’t read all the articles.I pick the most interesting.My selection goes towards titles that question me the most.When I see a question, I wonder what’s this … I’m very curious in life (in general) and even more in the press.I think it’s a good way to encourage people to read articles.I’ve tried once on the web and it has worked very well! But I think we don’t have to forget the usual titles.

    PS: Sorry for my English

  2. It’s a good idea when the story discusses the question. It’s a bad idea when–as particularly in TV news shows–the intents is to suggest ‘you don’t know and we’re going to tell you.’

    I don’t know of any blanket ban that is anything other than an order to the editor: Don’t think! Obey! Take, for example, slavish devotion to the serial comma. If you go along with that you’re not an editor and not a copy editor. You’re a proof reader.

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