The Curious Listener: Headline Heaven : NPR Extra Ever wonder how NPR's Shots blog comes up with so many science puns? You're not the only one, and The Curious Listener series has the answer.
NPR logo The Curious Listener: Headline Heaven

The Curious Listener: Headline Heaven

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Katie Burk/NPR

News headlines can make or break a story. They often determine whether a person keeps listening or reading or moves on. And in this cyber age, headlines have the potential to go viral in just a few minutes.

The well-written ones are straightforward, pithy and memorable. But when they're bad, headlines can be misleading, inflammatory and, well, memorable.

It's no small task to craft just the right tone in so few words, and even more difficult when an entire news organization strives for a consistent, recognizable style across its headlines.

One fan of NPR's titles, and title writers, wrote in to find out just how our journalists get so creative with their words. Check out what NPR's Listener Services had to say about the wordsmiths (and a few tips they had to offer too) in this edition of The Curious Listener series.

Hi -

I've noticed more and more the creativeness of the majority of NPR's headlines. I'm assuming each reporter comes up with the catchy titles, yet all the titles seem to have a similar tone. Any tips on coming up with unique titles that will make people actually want to read the news story (I do a lot of writing at work for newsfeeds etc)?

Thank you,

San Francisco, CA

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for contacting NPR.

The short answer: Practice. (I know, that's not what you wanted to hear, right?)

The longer answer: Each show has a styleguide that the reporters use - it's a general set of guidelines that keep the tone of the show and the stories consistent with each other and with NPR's greater styleguide. Before you ask, no, I can't send that to you. It's proprietary (just like the styleguides and internal business documents of other large news networks are).

There's no magic formula - I can't tell you "include two adjectives and a pop culture reference" and have that always work. What I can say is that we are very fortunate to have a large staff of experienced journalists who are both great wordsmiths and able to collaborate to figure out headlines. We also have a large editorial staff who are able and willing to suggest corrections and improvements in both headlines and articles for accuracy and, well, zing. Every headline you read has been run by multiple people in our newsroom.Sometimes they're less than witty and sometimes they're a little bit too reliant on puns - no one's perfect.

We are always delighted to hear from listeners. Please let us know if we can be of further assistance, and best of luck with your future title-writing.

Thank you for listening to NPR, and for your continued support of public broadcasting. For the latest news and information, visit

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