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Dyson at Large: How confusing headlines can annoy readers

Don’t you just hate it when you can’t easily understand what the front page headline of a newspaper’s trying to tell you?

Despite using 15 words on Friday 4 November, the Bexhill-On-Sea Observer failed to quickly and clearly explain what its splash was about.

‘Alfie wanted them to be given life sentences – that’s what he feels he has got’, said the Observer’s main headline.


This awkward syntax jarred straight away, and even after reading it twice I ended up interpreting it inaccurately.

The sub-heading told me Alfie had been attacked, and so the headline (I thought) indicated that he’d now got what he wanted – something that at least felt like ‘life sentences’ for his assailants.

But the full story on page three then left me confused: for a start it changed subjects from a brain-damaged Alfie to his partner, and while she was ‘glad’ his attackers had been jailed, she actually felt “they should have been given a life sentence”.

The second paragraph then re-jumbled the meaning: “Tanya White says Alfie Peak, who was left confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak following the attack, feels he has been given a life sentence – and believes his attackers should have been sentenced to the same.”

Hold on a minute, is it Alfie or Tanya who ‘believes’ this? The headline and the second paragraph says it’s Alfie, but how can it be, given he’s tragically not in a position to express that wish?

And while it’s now clear that Tanya (or Alfie) wanted tougher sentences, the second clause of the headline (‘that’s what he feels he has got’) initially gave an ambiguous ‘justice achieved’ meaning.

Yes, we get there, sort of, in the end, but many readers might have given up, either not buying the paper in the first place or, if they had bought it, feeling so muddled they might never buy it again.

What the Johnston Press-owned Observer was trying out was a ‘talkie’ headline, and there are times when those are warranted and work perfectly, but this one failed by confusing the subject, object and meaning of the implied sentence.

What might have worked better? In 15 words, how about: ‘Thugs gave my Alfie a life sentence, and they should have been given the same’.

Or maybe ditch the ‘talkie’ and just say: ‘Victim’s family wanted thugs jailed for life’.

The 90p Observer was good value for money: more than 230 reads plus listings on around 75 editorial pages in a 104-page main paper, and a 28-page ‘Property’ pull-out.

But some of the headlines on inside pages also failed to inspire, or made readers work too hard to understand what was going on.

‘Angling club needs backing for temporary cabin for juniors’ on page seven was technically correct, but the double ending could have been much simpler … how about ‘Young anglers need backing for temporary cabin’.

‘Council tax precept to rise?’ on the same page was just lazy, both with the question mark and by sticking to the jargon … how about ‘£5 tax rise for extra police’.

‘Fire-hit cafe ‘manically busy’ for reopening day’ on page eight was needlessly clunky … how about ‘Fire-hit cafe has ‘manic’ reopening day’.

And ‘Five/six bedroom home’ screaming across the full width of the page for the splash in ‘Property’ was so poor it made me want to give up.


There’s no apology for this blog’s focus, because as we hurtle forwards in the digital age it’s never been more important to remember how to create decent headlines for print.

For online, you can simply concentrate on Google search-obsessed readers, packing ever-longer sentences with SEO-sensitive proper nouns and keywords in a sad but necessary emulation of MailOnline.

But for print, we must still grab readers’ attention with powerful headlines that give concrete reasons to read on: give them some news, make them think, get them curious about what we’re saying.

Above all else, we have to refine print headlines until they’re clear at one glance, because to confuse only ends up annoying readers.

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  • November 30, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    “For online, you can simply concentrate on Google search-obsessed readers, packing ever-longer sentences with SEO-sensitive proper nouns and keywords in a sad but necessary emulation of MailOnline.”

    This is not an accurate description of how to write a good online headline.

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