A few words about headline writing

You already have a pretty good idea what today’s column is all about: headlines. And you know it because you read the headline at the top before you started reading this text.

A quick survey of editors who write and revise headlines at The Daily Herald produces a pretty consistent list of what makes a good headline. And the list starts with accuracy and clarity.

“Good headlines accurately and concisely summarize the article,” says Mark Carlson, the Herald’s news editor.

For Doug Parry, Web editor for HeraldNet, this forces an editor to ask himself, “‘Is this accurate?’ and ‘Does this read smoothly?’”

And few things haunt editors — or their newspapers — like a headline that shouts out something that is wrong. One of the iconic headlines in the history of American journalism was the Chciago Tribune’s banner on the 1948 presidential elections: “Dewey defeats Truman.” (Fail.)

(In defense of the Tribune’s headline writer, the reporter and editors at the Tribune jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on projections. The headline accurately summarized their story.)

But that brings up a particular rub. Many reporters at some point have found themselves grumbling that news sources thought their story was accurate, “but they didn’t like the headline.” And that’s when the reporters — or their bosses — have to explain to callers that it is editors, not reporters, who write most headlines.

Why? This is mostly a matter of timing. A newspaper headline isn’t written until a page is being assembled and editors decide where a story will run and how much room will be available for its headline.

Is it an important story, where large type has to fit into a limited space? Will the headline be crowbarred into a skinny column down the side of a page? Often, the headline is one of the last things completed before a page goes to the press. Few reporters, who do most of their work during business hours, are around to join in the fun.

Jon Bauer, assistant news editor, comments, “Headline writers have a Hippocratic oath of their own: First, do no harm. Or in other words, don’t confuse the reader. The headline has to be accurate, give a sense of the story, fit the space allotted and make the reader care enough to read the story.”

Oh, and achieve all those things under deadline pressure.

Along with a flair for language, Daily Herald editors identified another important quality that contributes to good headline writing — experience.

“It takes time to learn the craft of writing good headlines,” says Carlson, the news editor. “A good headline writer can quickly assess the story and how it should be represented in the headline.”

In addition to all the technical demands of headline writing, editors need to cultivate a sense of how to connect with readers. And this requires equal parts of news judgment, salesmanship and verbal finesse.

“”Headlines organize and prioritize stories,” says Sally Birks, assistant features editor. “Big and greasy? This story is important. Light and feathery? Must be a feature. They also entice the reader and give them a clue to what the story’s about.” (Greasy is old print shop slang for “bold.”)

Bauer agrees. “The headline gives readers a quick overview of what’s going on in their world,” he says. “Good headlines will draw readers into stories they otherwise might not have read.”

Headlines speak in a style that is all their own. For instance:

• They are almost always written in the present tense, even though they usually describe things that have already occurred.

• Headlines routinely substitute commas for the conjunction “and” — as in: “Candidate visits Washington, Oregon”

• And headlines often omit the verbs “is” and “are” — as in: “Team in playoffs again”

And while these shortcuts are widely accepted, Daily Herald editors blame many weak headlines on a lack of effort or ambition. Experienced editors know that their first efforts aren’t always their best efforts — and they need to push themselves a little harder.

Jessi Loerch, a copy and design editor, rattles off a list of things that make headlines weak. Inaccuracies. Misleading phrasing. Grammar mistakes. Confusing wording. And several of her fellow editors were quick to add bad puns — or any ham-handed attempt at humor that makes readers groan.

Mark Carlson also points out that it is easy for a headline writer to fall back on lazy jargon — what folks in the business call “headlinese.”

He scoffs at vague wording like: “Area man tapped for panel.” Translated from headlinese, it might mean a Snohomish County resident has been appointed to an economic advisory board.

Like most aspects of journalism, headline writing has been complicated by the Internet. Editors often need to produce multiple headlines for a single story. A headline for the print edition is written to appeal to human ears and eyes. A headline for the Web is packed with the kinds of words that click search engines like Google — geographical references, proper names, catchphrases. And a headline written to fit on a mobile phone screen will contain only a few short words.

Yet, HeraldNet editor Parry says, “The place where a headline can be used to greatest effect is still on the printed page.”

An example?

Not long ago, Loerch had to come up with a few big words that would sum up our outpouring of nostalgia for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair — which had a campy, futuristic, space-age theme.

Her solution? “Memories of the future.”

Each week, Here at The Herald provides an inside peek at the newspaper. Is there something you would like to know? Email Executive Editor Neal Pattison, npattison@heraldnet.com.

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