(Non-clickbait) Head Goes Here
The Disappearing Art of Headline Writing
I spent the majority of my career in journalism as a copy editor. The job goes with little praise — especially outside the industry. When you tell people you are a copy editor they generally assume you are working your way up to being a reporter — not the other way around as it was for me.
You don’t get a byline for all the mistakes you catch, the sentences you make stronger or your advocacy for the reader to make something more clear.
But one cool thing you do get to do is write the headline.
That doesn’t sound exciting if you’ve never written one, but it’s the one place you get to put your own stamp on the thing. You actually get the privilege of inviting the reader to enter the story the reporter has crafted.
Often, it’s routine — “2 Die in Head-on Collision” or “Johnson Leads Warriors Past Panthers to Take Country Tournament.” But you aren’t allowed to screw those up. They’re in big, bold letters, and some family is grieving, some team is celebrating. They’re going to clip that story out and put it in a scrapbook.
Sometimes, though, you do get to sing your solo. You get to do that special thing in big, bold letters that makes a reader want to wade through all those words below it in 12-point type. If it’s really a worthy read, the headline needs to say so.
I wasn’t bad at that. And I was blessed enough to have spent most of my career at a newspaper that at the time rewarded such efforts with more than an attaboy and a pat on the back.
The Birmingham News’ “Best of the Month” and “Best of the Year” monetary prizes went to the top hard news, features, photos, opinion pieces — and to headlines. I enjoyed the challenge of a good headline even at papers where it wasn’t reward with cash, but it was even nicer when it was.
I wrote “Don’t Take All That’s Givens” when a widow lost her husband’s life insurance policy for taking investment guru Charles Givens’ advice too literally. And I wrote “She’s a Pistil!” for a feature on a woman who was cast to play the typically male voice of Audrey II in a college production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The big rules of headline writing? Match the tone of the story and always entice the reader into the piece. Cleverness counts, but not at the expense of accuracy.
I like the Givens and a the Pistil heads because they are absolutely true even without the wordplay. It didn’t hurt that the Pistil story was illustrated with a photo of the actor jumping out of the middle of Audrey II — right where the pistil would be.
Givens was a one-column head. Those are a bigger challenge because you’ve got less space to fit what you want to say. So when you can write a good one it’s worth mounting on the wall next to that 10-pound largemouth.
I’m not trying to make myself out to be a genius — I misfired more than I hit a bullseye.
When I thought “What ‘wood’ Jesus do?” was a clever subhead in a Religion page story on a Christian woodworker, our city editor quickly disabused me.
He marched over to the copy desk pointing to my handiwork in the early run and asked who had written it. I could tell he wasn’t wanting to nominate it for “Best of the Month.”
But even in those times I didn’t write the perfect headline, at least I said something in them.
When we started having to adjust to the online world it became less about cleverness and puns, more about search engine optimization. Not being one for change, I bristled. But I worked to be both clever and SEO compatible.
Spam the torpid foes, full-speed ahead!
As you can see, it ain’t always successful.
Then came the click-bait headline — the one that tells you nothing. Happily, I’ve never been required to write them, but you’ll never guess what happened next when I saw them on my Facebook feed!
Actually, you will. I threw up a little in my mouth.
The theory appears to be that if you can’t guess what happened next you’ll be so intrigued you’ll have to click and see what did, indeed, happen next. It’s typically underwhelming, though, so the enticement quit working on me years ago. Yet I still see these ridiculous come-ons by the scores on social media.
In one sense, even the old headlines printed in actual ink on actual newsprint were a precursor to clickbait heads. Their point was to entice you into reading the story, whether it be by clever pun or just plain-old straightforwardness.
But I always felt part of my job — a copy editor is after all the readers’ advocate — to not only persuade you not to skip a story you’d like, but also to let you know not to bother with one you wouldn’t. It’s false advertising.
Clickbait heads are almost always false advertising, and they shouldn’t win out. They feed the narrative of a lying media.
I don’t want to live a in world where the New York Post’s legendary Vincent Musetto would be forced to change “Headless Body In Topless Bar” to “Topless Bar Owner’s Final Moments Will Astound You!”
And who would want to watch Jay Leno do a whole segment on “This Weird Trick Would Have Prevented That Chitlin Truck from Losing Its Load in Climax”?