“Headlines are the hidden weapons of writers and editors,” says my Canadian Press style book.
They need to be concise, lively, and preferably suck the reader in.
Headline writing is a special talent, and one that develops over time simply by practice. Lots and lots of practice makes for punchy headlines.
In their heyday, large newspaper organizations even made headline writing its own job. Today, as a growing number of newsies are expected to do more with less, headline writing is part of the job description for many reporters.
It could be argued reporters today get more practice in headline writing than their counterparts of old by virtue of 140-character tweets and Facebook status updates, but it could also be argued this is a job best left to the pros.
Every now and then I come across a headline where the writer, seasoned or amateur, clearly took some liberties.
A couple of weeks ago, “Mutant lice on rampage in Canada” caught my attention on the Winnipeg Free Press’s website.
The lede in the story even used the phrase “Franken-lice.”
Puns tend to be the old standby for headlines (possibilities here include “New breed of lice a hair-raising problem” or “Lice in cross-hairs of shampoo manufacturers”).
While sensationalism is generally frowned upon, sometimes evocative words such as “mutant” and “rampage” can sum up the story in a way that makes it sound much more exciting than even puns that make your hair curl.
Then again, sometimes a story is so sensational its headline can’t help but come off as ridiculous. From the Irish tabloid Evening Herald, I give you: “Woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in a gay pub after she waved at a man dressed as a Snickers bar.”
The Huffington Post is notorious for its viral articles and columns with headlines known as click-bait, which are misleading ways to title stories to bring readers to its site.
Sometimes, headlines are so obvious you get the distinct impression the news week was slower than a turtle wading through peanut butter.
A New York Post article once made the headline proclamation “Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25.” Right.
We can thank the Evening Herald again for this gem: “Homicide victims rarely talk to police.”
Perhaps the gold mine for obvious headlines falls in the health category.
“Healthy diet lowers death risk for women.” I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that goes for all humans.
“Putting urine in your ears not recommended to treat sinus infection.” Gee, I sure am glad we cleared that up. Gross.
Headlines may be the hidden weapons of writers and editors, but some headlines should stay just that: hidden.