The Art of Writing Headlines

Headline writing is a neglected art, as I observed today reading my local newspaper. It seems that today’s generation of editors just does not know how to write a good headline. There was a time when headlines conveyed much of the tone of a publication, and some papers had such a distinctive style that you could instantly know a headline came from that particular source. A good example would be the staccato Hollywood alitterations of Variety magazine. I think the best headline I ever saw was a parody of this style in a Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s, it read “Lax Styx Wax Clicks.” The headline is incomprehensible unless you read the article, where it is revealed the band Styx had not produced an album in several years, and the new album is a hit.

Headline writing has a long tradition of stylistic conventions. I remember my first training in headline writing in a journalism class. We got handouts of long lists of common verbs, with synonyms sorted by length in ems. You’d find a word like “win” and you’d find a list of dozens of synonyms that you could choose to shorten or lengthen the head to fit the space. It took quite a bit of skill at copyfitting and some artistic ability to say as much as possible in a short headline. But the average hack just used the list to rotate verbs once in a while to keep the headlines from sounding stale. Unfortunately, your average hack will also drive those synonyms into the ground. Look at your average sports page and see how many times you see relatively disused and odd synonyms for “win” or “defeat.”

I particularly began paying attention to headlines when I started reading Japanese newspapers, the styles are entirely different. Headlines often omit verbs, leaving the reader to complete the sentence. Long complex word structures are often abbreviated with a string of even more complex kanji. The main headline may not be the primary focus, a subhead may be the core story. I remember reading a headline of an airline crash in the US, the top of the page had a massive bold headline, “No Japanese Killed.” The secondary, much smaller headline said “250 People Killed in Airliner Crash in US.”

I’ve found that as I read more Japanese, some of my English writing skills deteriorate. My essays tend to be written in kishotenketsu style, which is not really very straightforward. My headlines are dull, they start with dull words like “the” and use cliches like “The Art of..” I haven’t decided on proper capitalization rules. So I’m going to go back to school and dig up my 25-year-old papers on the art of headline writing. Some research in Strunk & White and the AP Stylebook seem to be in order.

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