J-333 / News Editing

Frank E. Fee Jr.

Lecture Recap - Day 10

A process for writing headlines

    Coming up with good headlines is really a four-step process:

1. First, you must read the story, the whole story. And as you do, jot down key words, terms, ideas that might be important in the headline. You probably won't be able to use all of them, but the list will be a big help as you start to think small.

2. Once you have read through the entire story, write a single, simple, summary sentence based on your list. Try to be conversational, using comfortable, natural language. Make it a "letter to Mom," or a "Hey Fred!" sentence.

3. Once you have got that summary sentence, it's just a matter of whittling and squeezing to make the sentence fit the headline order. Yes, that's easier said than done, but with a little practice you will be surprised how much easier it gets.

4. And the final step: Read the headline over, aloud. Several things are going on in this last step. One, you're watching out for ambiguity, whether the headline could possibly be read any other way. Read for literal truth. Also, be on guard for libel. Don't have fun at another person's expense. Remember John Russial's point about "First, do no harm." "Have some empathy. Imagine that the subject of the story is your neighbor or a family member. One person's cleverness is another's ridicule." And by reading it aloud, you get a sense of how easy or difficult the headline is to read. It it's too difficult to read easily, go back and fine tune it. 

How they do it in Columbus -- and a lot of other places
In the analysis of the Columbus Dispatch, several people identified what are called "label" headlines -- headlines that lack verbs and seem to rely more on effect than information content. As we discussed in class, book titles don't work on the news page, and where labels are used, we also need to have decks or other devices that explain or amplify.
Another important function of the newspaper headline is as a typographical device. Small, light headlines rob a page of snap and clarity. On the other hand, huge dollops of heavy black type can be overpowering. A balance needs to be struck, keeping in mind all the functions of headlines. We'll talk more about that when we get to layout and design.
Your analysis of a week's worth of headlines in the Columbus Dispatch produced a fine list of "rules" for writing headlines. Here is the compendium. Keep in mind the point made in class about compromising a rule if you have good, overriding reason. But in general headline writers should:
  1. Find the headline angle in the first graf or two.
  2. Use active voice.
  3. Write headlines in present tense, unless the result would be absurd or confusing.
  4. Write in third-person, although an occasional "you" head can be effective.
  5. Think of headlines as simple, declarative sentences. Follow the subject-verb-object model.
  6. Use commas in place of conjunctions.
  7. In downstyle headlines [the kind we will use, by the way], capitalize only the first word and proper nouns in the headline.
  8. Make each line of a headline a complete phrase or thought.
  9. Follow the AP Stylebook, but allow for exceptions (e.g., numerals).
  10. Attribute quotes and statements that are subjective, matters of opinion or value judgments.
  11. Use single quotes in headlines.
  12. Use quotes to indicate words or ideas not meant to be taken literally -- but don't push it.
  13. Use the colon for the attributive verb "said," putting the speaker and colon before the quote or phrase (e.g., Clinton: 'I'm no cheat').
  14. Do not use articles (a, an, the) in heads.
  15. Use vigorous verbs.
  16. Whenever possible, "paint a picture" -- show, don't tell.
  17. Treat the words "is" and "are" as implicit and therefore unnecessary in the headline.
  18. Strive to use interesting words that exactly fit the facts of the story.
  19. Keep it simple. Don't wander from the most important point in the story.
  20. If you must include two ideas in the headline, separate them with a semicolon, which acts as a period in headlines.
  21. Do not use periods in headlines. Confine use of end punctuation to the question mark, and then use that sparingly. Never ask a question in the headline that is not answered in the story.
  22. Avoid prepositions. Some are necessary but they also betray wordy constructions that can blunt a headline.
  23. Use names in headlines only if the person would be instantly recognizable to your core readers.
  24. With rare exceptions (e.g., Saddam), only use last names.
  25. Use alliteration only if it is unforced and appropriate to the story. That goes for puns and other word play, too.
  26. Use a word no more than once in a headline. That's true of variations of the word, too. 
  27. Use jargon, literary allusions and word play only if the references would be understood by your core readers.
  28. Do not put time elements in headlines unless they are essential to meaning and clarity.
  29. Never break a word over two lines.
  30. Tailor headline styles to the section in which they appear. Sports, business and features readers can reasonably be expected to recognize special references that the general Page One reader should not have to know.
  31. In combinations, if you write a label head for the main line, the deck must be clear and explanatory.
  32. Cover all the type of the story with the headline.
  33. Let headline typeface reflect the seriousness and magnitude of the news it reports.
  34. Limit acronyms to those accepted by the AP Stylebook, or if local references, to those clearly understood by your core readers.
  35. Think of your audience and what they are likely to know.
  36. Where appropriate, use the names of nations and other geographic terms as locators and as anthropomorphism (e.g., Iraq strikes back at U.S.).
  37. Do not use first-person personal pronouns (I, we) outside of direct quotes.
  38. Use available head space to communicate, not fill space.
  39. Don't steal a good ending from the story by putting it in the head.
  40. Do not repeat the lede verbatim or use words verbatim from the first graf.
  41. Make the news sound recent; stress immediacy and timeliness.
  42. Do not use slang in headlines, unless for special effect.

And some more rules
For such a creative enterprise, there seem to be a lot of rules about how to write headlines. Here are some more. Where they repeat the rules we've already come up with, think of the duplication as stressing important points. 

1. Be specific. Vagueness and generalities are deadly. There are worse crimes in print than boring the reader, but few are more instantly self-defeating than dullness.

2. Use conversational, easy language. Avoid headlinese, stilted syntax. If it sounds like a headline, try again.

3. Try to make each line of headline a complete thought unit. Avoid bad breaks

4. Get action in the first line.

5. Every headline should have a verb. Save label heads for special occasions..

6. Stress the message, not the messenger.

7. Strive for different point of view.

8. Do not plagiarize the lede. Be original. You owe that to the reader and the reporter.

9. Do not base head on 95th graf.

10. Do not give away surprise ending.

11. Make head tone reflect the story. And follow Russial's rule of doing no harm in headlines. Make no "brights" out of human tragedy.

12. Make sure "days" agree. Do not put a first-day head on second-day story, or blunt the news by putting a soft headline on breaking, hard news..

13. Use only "headline names."

14. Do not be cute with names.

15. Do not use words, phrases you do not know -- especially foreign words. More than one copy editor tripped on words he or she didn't know but used anyway.

16. Be very cautious if using dialect. What is fun for you may be offensive and painful to others.

17. Write about positives rather than what didn't happen.

18. Make sure headline has only one meaning.

Lest We Forget

Please remember to observe the university honor code in all exercises and projects in this course, including the Copy Edit the World project.

Comments? Questions? Call 593-9851 (o) or 594-5251 (h), or send me an e-mail message for virtual office hours. Or, stop in for a real visit. You're always welcome.
-- Frank Fee