Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Class of the Hed

For me, headline writing is a bit of a zen exercise, and so it's hard for me to give tips on how to write good headlines. I can tell you what I don't like, though, and so I'll offer a few don'ts.

Proposal Praised, Decried

  • Good, comma, bad. Variations on the "best of times, worst of times" theme can work well at times. Here, though, I'm talking about the utterly lazy headline analog of the redundant phrase "controversial issue." If it weren't controversial it wouldn't be an issue, and it isn't often that a plan makes the news without having both supporters and opponents.

    Bush a Stupid Idiot, Franken Says

  • Shooting first, coming out of the sniper's nest later. Before I worked for a "paper of record," I had the opposite view on this topic. Give me the meat and then bore me with the attribution, I might have said. And that's still not a bad idea when the emotion in question is relatively tame and the emoter isn't all that important. But when the story is that somebody is making an accusation or any sort of powerful statement, full disclosure demands that the speaker be identified before being allowed to spout.

    As you turn that kind of headline around, though, make sure you don't commit my most hated headline sin: the omission of a helping verb in a verb that isn't the main verb. Bush a Stupid Idiot, if you'll excuse the editorializing, is fine. "Is" is omitted, but it's the main verb, and omitting that word when it's either the auxiliary verb (Bush Denying Franken Charge) or the only verb (Bush a Stupid Idiot) is a well-established headline conceit. "Is" is still the main verb in Bush a Stupid Idiot, Franken Says, and so that form of attribution, despite my other problems with it, is structurally sound.

    But Franken Says Bush a Stupid Idiot is not structurally sound. "Says" becomes the main verb in such a construction, and so the helping verb is required: Franken Says Bush Is a Stupid Idiot. If space does not allow that auxiliary verb, there are verbs that work without helpers. Franken Calls Bush a Stupid Idiot. Or Franken Terms Bush a Stupid Idiot. Or Franken Labels Bush a Stupid Idiot. But you can't say somebody a stupid idiot.

    Bush a 'Stupid Idiot'

  • The naked quote. In related news, this technique also sucks. A paper-not-of-record could get away with America 'Beautiful' over a Fourth of July puff piece, but, in general, quotation marks do not qualify as attribution. If you print that headline, your publication is calling the president a stupid idiot. Better, even, to go with the still-nakeder version: 'Stupid Idiot' all by itself, with a secondary hed explaining what the hell you're talking about, isn't great, but it's a little less likely to be read as your publication's opinion.

    Decline Blamed on Crime, Schools, Economy

  • The threesome. Another basic headline conceit is the use of the comma to mean "and." It isn't the greatest device in the world even when it does work, as the Onion has illustrated (Looters Demand Justice, VCRs), and it really gets pushed to the limit when you use it more than once in the same headline. Join two items if you must, but revert to the serial "and" with three or more.


    Chance said...

    "Franken: Bush a Stupid Idiot"

    aparker54 said...

    Zeugma can be fun. "She left in a rage and a taxi" has always tripped my trigger. I'm not sure whether "But time and her aunt moved slowly" fits in the model, though that sentence also delights me.

    Was Franken being otiose? "Stupid" and "idiot" together? Probably not, considering the etymology of "idiot." But I'm diverging from the point of the topic.

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