A thread on heads

December 26, 2003

Blanp rails yet again on people’s lopsided notions of “good” headlines.

My favorite riposte:

Nearly all winners in headline contests are puns. Usually, they aren?t even funny. Copy editors see this and draw the lesson that they are supposed to turn every headline into a joke, because they have learned that that is the only way to earn praise or even acknowledgement that they exist. When the goofball headlines reach epidemic status, the entire paper reads like a poorly written comic book, and credibility suffers.

Moreover, the few wordplay heds that are actually well crafted don?t receive the attention they deserve because they are drowned in a sea of mediocrity.

Contests work for most categories of journalism: award-winning reporting, photography and design do readers and publishers more good than harm (time spent preparing/judging the nominations and getting blotto at the awards banquet notwithstanding), but they really don’t work for writing headlines, because a) standards of what a “good” headline is are too vague; b) even if standards existed, the winners would not seem worthy of prizes because there’d be nothing overtly prize-winning about them; c) the headline writer has no control over the two greatest variables: the story and the space allotted to summarize it. These kind of obstacles discourage us from entering contests, and courage us to heap scorn upon them.

My headline contest story: Back when I was designing and editing features pages for the Peoria Journal Star, a bunch of my heads helped the paper win the Illinois Press Association’s annual headline writing contest (my work was judged a hair superior to the next entry, which came from Dean, the guy who sat next to me … we were a pun-spewing collossus, I tell you). Now and then I look back on that time and wonder what was so special about those heads I did.

This was the setup: I edited all the copy for my pages, wrote all the display type and consulted with the photo editor to get images to fit the copy.

Then I’d build the pages in Quark and write my heads, decks and captions right there on the page. I gave myself whatever space I needed, or didn’t need.

My centerpiece display almost always consisted of a single label headline and a single summary sentence. No headlinese, no jargon, few puns (I wasn’t clever enough) — just a simple declarative sentence describing what the story’s about.

When my page was done I proofed it and sent a copy to the features editor, who tweaked stuff now and then but generally left me alone to write it as I saw it.

Now consider how headline writing is done at most papers: Editors who don’t design write the heads, and designers who don’t edit tell the editors how much space they’ve got. Every change has to be negotiated, which wears on people to the point where designers and editors stop talking to each other and building pages becomes a zero-sum game: design at the expense of editing or editing at the expense of design. Either way, mediocrity flourishes (it doesn’t have to, though; the best fix is for editors to think more like designers, designers to think more like editors, and everybody to think of themselves as storytellers).

One Response to A thread on heads

  1. emil on December 29, 2003 at 7:43 am

    “and everybody to think of themselves as storytellers”
    Amen, brother.