Guest post: Sometimes, headline puns are no fun

Students in my Advanced Editing course will be contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the first of these guest posts. Shanae Auguste is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior who is double-majoring in journalism and sociology. She says she “has a passion for all things sports-related.”

Headline puns do have the ability to work decently, but oftentimes … they do not. Some can be lame and downright tasteless. And lately, the journalism world has begun to frown upon the device like a red-headed stepchild. After seeing nine headline puns in one edition of his paper, an editor at the San Antonio Express-News even went as far as permanently banning their use altogether.

So why are puns in headlines usually not the answer? In my opinion, they make a newspaper appear trashy and on the verge of “tabloid-ism” (I’m guessing that’s not really a word, is it?). Headlines don’t have to be cute, trendy and hip. Funny is acceptable at times, but I’d rather see a hard-hitting and concise one than an “Oh, how clever” one.

Don’t get me wrong; some do work, but I’ve seen more failures than successes. For example, the now outdated “Barack the vote” headline I saw in every paper back in September (and on bumper stickers) was fine at the time. Others, like “Burning ring of fire destroys Johnny Cash’s home,” however, are not fine. It seems these days that the larger metropolitan papers are leaning toward the pun, while great papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times hardly ever use them. Perhaps this could be a reason why the latter papers are two of the most respected?

Believe it or not, there are ways to write great headlines without causing wry laughs and eye-rolling. Here are a few quick tips:

  • A headline is like a first date: The first impression needs to be a good impression. The best, if at all possible. Forget the puns and trying to be funny; focus on basics like keeping headlines in present tense and using the active voice.
  • Try to include subjects and verbs in the headlines. Having the reader insinuate what the subject of the headline is leads to unnecessary confusion
  • Use short, simple words. Don’t confuse the reader with jargon and such
  • Be specific. Be, be specific! Most of the time, general words make for boring headlines.

The urge to use puns in headlines often emerges when writing headlines for online stories. Although people who read stories online aren’t necessarily paying money for the content, it is still the headline writer’s responsibility to sell the story. It’s difficult to do that when using pun heds, as they don’t really contain good search engine keywords. Good keywords = good chance of appearing high on an RSS news feed.

Headlines are meant to summarize a story and to capture a potential reader’s interest. The latter can be done safely without the use of snazzy phrases, inside jokes and double entendres. Instead of evoking groans because of a headline and having potential readers bypass your story, take the time to actually write an arresting and conventional headline sans the puns.

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