The Power and Perils of Headlines

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Strong, active headlines demand attention. They are brief and to the point, telling time-starved readers whether they want to read a story. They can be gripping, emotional -- or funny. The best pull a reader right into the lead of a story. The not-so-good bring complaints.

Headlines can be famous, such as " Headless Body in Topless Bar," from the New York Post, a wellspring of wacky headlines, and "Wall St. Lays an Egg," the headline in the show business paper Variety after the 1929 stock market crash. My favorite, from the late Minneapolis Star, is on the 1971 obituary of humorist and poet Ogden Nash: "They've Got to Stash Ogden Nash."

Copy editors write headlines. Even good "heds" often go unnoted except by the souls on the rim or by the "slot," who is often the copy desk chief. These terms go back to the days when copy editors sat around a U-shaped desk; the boss was in the "slot."

As a former copy editor, I know it's tough work, especially on a tight deadline and in a tight count. As Vince Rinehart, Editorial copy desk chief, said: "Perhaps the greatest challenge in copy editing is reading 1,000 sophisticated words on a complex topic and finding six words to tell the story and convey its nuance and tone, often with less than five minutes to do so."

Readers who complain about headlines often don't know how hard it is to tell the story in a four-line, one-column head with only 12 characters a line. Andy Parsons, a headline ace on the Metro copy desk, did just that on a Page 1 story about lost baggage:

Now Arriving

At Carousel 1,

Far Fewer

Of Your Bags

The Post stylebook says that headlines "must be accurate" and "capture the essence and tone of the story, as well as the most important element." Headlines should also "invite readers into the story. Use vivid words. Avoid headlinese . . . and deadening, bureaucratic language whenever possible. Headlines should be written in understandable, conversational English."

Bill Walsh, National copy desk chief, defines "headlinese" as "all those short words that you see only in headlines -- Rips, Flays, Nabs, Blasts, Dems, OKs. The Post is pretty good about avoiding those."

Walsh reeled off more than a dozen things a copy editor must keep in mind when writing a headline; particularly important for Page One stories, he said, is deciding whether to concentrate on the specifics of a story or on the bigger picture it might illustrate. "Sometimes you don't want to cram in every possible bit of information," he added. "It can be more effective to just offer a tantalizing taste."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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