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A Great Headline Goes Here

By John Kelly
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page C11

I am fascinated by the headlines in The Post that are plays on words or well-known phrases: "John Heinz, Preferring Inner Light to Limelight" and "Anne Arundel Considers Giving Video Bingo a Spin." Every day these wonderful lines literally fly off the page. Are they written by a specially trained wordsmith? I do some writing and have trouble coming up with even one or two of these rascals. Are there tricks?

Mary Bowman-Kruhm, Frederick

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As I write this, the words on the top of my computer screen say "Headline Goes Here." If all goes well, by the time you read this, one of The Post's specially trained wordsmiths will have replaced that space-holding phrase with something informative and clever -- words that will entice you, the reader, to invest some of your valuable time on this column.

While copy editors do many things -- check facts; police for style, spelling and grammar; judge balance, taste and completeness -- they really have a chance to shine when writing headlines.

"It's the most creative part of the job," said Marcia Kramer, the chief of Metro's copy desk, "because you're starting from scratch and summing up what can be a lengthy story in six words."

The best headlines avoid "headlinese," the stilted language, said Vince Rinehart, copy chief in The Post's editorial department, where "ethics are forever being 'mulled,' where things are 'roiled,' where people are 'assailed' and 'blasted' and 'decried.' "

Not every headline should be playful, of course. Headlines on news stories need to be pretty straightforward. More lighthearted stories, especially those in the Style section, can have "bright" heads.

"I think what The Post is best known for is adventurousness in feature headlines," said Vince, who also has worked in Style, Financial and National. (As opposed to the headlines in the New York Times, which employ a more formal style and need to be imagined, said Vince, as being read by Alastair Cooke.)

Regular readers know that we have a fondness for puns, i.e.: "Some Telling William Overtures" (over a story on the different leadership styles of two congressmen named Bill) or "Out for a Bit of Fresh Eire" (over a St. Patrick's Day column).

Some people can't stand them. A previous Post ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, regularly inveighed against puns, inviting readers to send in their favorite -- or, rather, least favorite -- groaners.

The current ombudsman, Michael Getler, said he doesn't receive as many complaints about punning headlines as he once did. And in any case, "a pun . . . is a good way to attract readers, maybe brighten up a story, maybe make the paper seem more lively or interesting. But you can overdo it. You diminish the impact of the really clever ones if you routinely use that technique."

Said Marcia Kramer: "I just can't stand piling on. I much prefer the subtle ones that say what's happening. And if you can get it on another level, then so much the better."

How do you know when you've gone too far?

"When it feels as if you did it because you could and not because you should," Vince said. "When it feels like it's calling attention to itself rather than to the story."

That would describe a headline I wrote when I was editor of The Post's Weekend section. The cover story was on ice fishing, and the headline I wanted was "Fin d'Icicle," a rather tortured play on fin de siècle, the waning days of the 19th century in France. Luckily, wiser heads prevailed.

So, how can you play along at home, writing your own snappy, Washington Post-style headlines? First thing, set the clock ticking. You don't have much time, maybe a few minutes. And you probably don't have much room. Many headlines have tight "counts," meaning a maddeningly narrow space.

It helps if you're smart, of course, and know a lot of cliches and aphorisms. But don't settle for the obvious. ("If I see a 'A Tale of Two Anythings,' I'm going to puke," Marcia said.)

You should be conversant in cultural matters, both high and low, from the movies of Quentin Tarantino to the symphonies of Claude Debussy. There's nothing wrong with looking for inspiration in thesauri, dictionaries, idiom dictionaries and rhyming dictionaries. (The Cambridge University Press has an idiom dictionary online: dictionary.cambridge.org.)

Copy editors sometimes jot down words that jump out of the story and use them in a word association game. After members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide, the Financial section did a story on insurance companies that were canceling policies against alien abduction. Vince Rinehart wrote down science fiction terms on one side of the paper and insurance terms on the other, looking for some sort of synergy between the two.

The headline he came up with: "Unindemnified Flying Object."

Good copy editors also need to have dirty minds, not so they can write a nasty headline on purpose, but so they don't do it accidentally. (Any story about an organ recital, for example, should be approached verrrry carefully.)

In a way, "funny" headlines are easier to write than straight ones. A well-crafted news headline is like a perfectly balanced hammer: a tool that does its job beautifully without drawing attention to itself.

But it's the puns and the funny wordplay that readers remember, such as the one Vince wrote for a story on workers putting up Christmas decorations in the off-hours at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City: "A Mall and the Night Visitors."

"I'd been saving [it] for years," he said.

Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com. Or write John Kelly, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company