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news editor: The supervisor of the copy desk. At some newspapers, this title is used for the person in charge of local news-gathering operations. See also: copy chief. News Reporting & Writing (Eighth Edition) by the Missouri Group. Copyright 2005. Reproduced by permission of Bedford/St. Martins.

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Lesson Plans

Writing Headlines

Ronni Kent of the New Visions: Publication Communications program.

Ronni Kent
New Visions: Public Communications
Times Union
Albany, N.Y.

Title: Headline Writing

Description of School and Students:

This lesson will be used for 12th grade students in the New Visions: Public Communications class (see bio information for an explanation of the program.)

Generative Topics:

  • Purpose of headlines in newspaper articles
  • Essential elements of strong headlines (Do’s & Don’ts)
  • “Count” system used before advent of electronic publishing
  • Identification of skills necessary to write effective headlines that fit story specs
  • Expanding vocabulary skills

Generative Object:

On overhead: copy of “Lower Case” page from any issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

Understanding Goals:

  • Essential or guiding questions:
    • What is the purpose of a headline?
    • What are the different types and styles of headlines in modern newspapers?
    • How have computers changed the methodology employed in headline writing?
    • What makes an effective headline?
  • Critical engagement questions:
    • What makes a headline “good” or “bad?”
    • What is the difference between news headlines and feature headlines?
    • How do you know if a headline will fit in the allotted space?
    • What kinds of questions can I ask myself in determining whether my headline is effective?

Overview & Rationale:

This lesson is about understanding the role of a copy editor and what kinds of skills they need to succeed, basic typographical principles, various types of headlines and how to write them effectively. The lesson/unit is designed for a class period of approximately 110 minutes (2-3 traditional class periods).

Activity 1: (10 min)

  • Using generative object to stimulate initial discussion by evaluating what’s wrong or funny about the headlines from “The Lower Case” and why. Students will begin to see that care needs to be taken to avoid these potential pitfalls.

Activity 2: (10 min)

  • Discuss elements of headline writing. Ask students to list purposes for headlines in a news story. Board responses.

Activity 3: (20 min)

  • Students read news article (from daily newspaper) and identify elements of strength and/or weaknesses they find in its headline. Students then read short feature article, and similarly discuss its headline. Discuss differences in style, sensitivity, when humor/wit are appropriate, inappropriate. Discuss use of verbs, need for extensive “shorter word” vocabulary, etc.

Activity 4: (20 min)

  • Hand out sheet with headline writing rules, tips & discuss each; evaluate in terms of preceding articles students have just read.

Activity 5: (10 min)

  • Give copies of recent news article (with headline erased) to students in small groups. Each group reads the story and writes an original headline for it. When all are finished, groups share their headlines verbally. Teacher should then show original story with original headline and compare.

Activity 6: (20 min)

  • Discuss column width, typographical specs and how headline must also FIT within predetermined space. Give out sheet with “Unit Count System” and review; have students check the headlines they wrote previously against the count and see whether theirs fit the guidelines for that story. Choose a headline (or two) from previous activity that was too long/too short and discuss ways to change it appropriately.

Activity 7: (designed for 20 min timeframe with activity completed as homework assignment; 30-40 minutes if completed in class)

  • Hand out vocabulary sheet and discuss need for copy editors to think of alternative, shorter, and/or more precise words for each word on list. Review several words on the list with students and come up with alternatives as a class.
  • Can handle completion of this activity either in class or as a homework assignment, with results shared in class the following day: Working either in small groups or as individuals, students are asked to think of their own alternatives for the remaining words on the list. Groups/individuals then share the alternative vocabulary words they have devised for each word on the list.


Students are each given two individual stories, one a news story and one a feature article, sans headlines. They will write appropriate headlines for each story, using count system. Each will be ultimately checked against its original headline and evaluated for accuracy, length and style.

Resources Recommended:

  • Columbia Journalism Review, any issue
  • Copies of Webster’s or any good dictionary for student use
  • Copies of Roget’s or any good thesaurus for student use
  • Local daily newspaper
  • " Newspaper Designer’s Handbook"
  • "Journalism Today," Ferguson, Patten, Wilson, Fifth Edition

Additional information:

Standard unit count headline method

  • Lowercase letters
1 unit
  • Uppercase letters
1½ units
  • Lowercase f, l, i, t and j  
½ unit
  • Uppercase M and W  
2 units
  • Spaces between words
½ unit
  • Punctuation
½ unit
  • Uppercase I or L and No. 1
½ unit

The point size of the headline type and the number of columns over which the headline will run will determine how many units you will have in the space available. Depending on the font your newspaper Selects for its headline, your chart could look something like this:

Number of columns in width



1 2 3 4 5 6
14 point 22 45
18 point 18 35


24 point 13 27 40 23
30 point 11 21 33 47 55
36 point 9 18 27 35 44 53
48 point 7 14 20 27 34 41
60 point 5 11 17 22 27 33
72 point 4 9 13 18 22 26

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