Anyone who’s ever worked as a journo will know – unfortunate things can happen. Picture the scene: deadline is fast ticking round, the editor’s gurning through his glass partition and pointing to his watch, and the print manager at the press hall is all ready to hit the button marked ‘go’.
The only problem is, you haven’t yet got that corker of a headline to complement your barnstormer of a page one story. The pressure’s on: with the right few words emblazoned above it, this scoop could see copies of the paper flying off the shelves as if caught in a Kansas tornado.
Mercilessly, the fingers of the clock tick round. Sweat gathers on your forehead. Fingers tremble uncertainly above keys. Eventually, dry-mouthed and palpitating, you have a stark moment of clarity: that crap, placeholder headline you scrawled down ten minutes earlier purely because it fitted the amount of available white space – well, it’ll have to do. I mean, it wasn’t that bad, was it? It was roughly the right number of letters… and it wasn’t inaccurate… and maybe you were just being paranoid… perhaps it was actually rather good… maybe an award is even in the offing! Enough prevaricating – ‘send’.
Giant clanging headlines do sometimes slip through the net. It’s a particular peril at local press level, where bean-counters have been merrily scything staff for years. This has sometimes had the effect of concertinaing the most crucial discussion of the morning (“What’s our splash headline going to be?”) to a five minute discussion between some hapless sub-editor and the bloke who’s restocking the drinks machine.
Or at least, that’s one generous interpretation of how the South Cumbria-based North-West Evening Mail managed to greenlight this sublime offering on the front page of its Saturday June 30 edition.
The story was, on the surface at least, a winner in all respects. It featured an interview with a grieving widower incensed after a court slashed the sentence of the motorist who fatally injured his wife in an accident.
What heart-rending line from the many on offer in the story would the sub choose to lead with? What poignancy could be milked from this most tragic of scenarios? What scintillating, soul-searching quote from the husband should scream out from page one in hundred-point Helvetica?
“I Am Annoyed.”
As, presumably, was the editor, the publisher, and many of the readers once it went into circulation.
Now, while the press is often roundly ridiculed for hyperbole, understatement can, inadvertently, be almost as comical. So, in honour of the North-West Evening Mail’s classic “well, at least it fit the space” offering, perhaps now’s a good time to refresh ourselves on a few top tips for good headline writing.
- Be to the point. In print media, not only can fewer words mean a larger font size, but a short, sharp message can pack a lot more welly than a rambling narrative.
- Use the active voice, not the passive voice. “Hamster Eaten By Freddie Starr” has none of the pizzazz of “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.
- Bring out the human element to the story. A burglary is interesting – but a burglary in which children lose their Christmas presents is really interesting…
- Be choosy with punctuation. Use as little as possible so that the eye can bound freely across the words. Definitely don’t put a full-stop at the end of a headline – ‘stopping’ is the last thing you want a potential reader to do.
- Watch out for hidden double meanings. One can only imagine that “Bishops agree sex abuse rules”, in The Sunday Business Review in April 2011, seemed like a good headline at the time…