Guest post: The challenge of writing headlines

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of these posts. Mike Gianotti is a senior majoring in journalism (news-ed sequence) at UNC-Chapel Hill. When he is off campus, he lives in Sanford, N.C. He has an A.A. degree from Wake Technical Community College, and he has a copy-editing internship at the The News & Observer in Raleigh this semester. He has also worked at The Daily Tar Heel for four semesters (two on the Online Desk and two on the Editorial Board).

“Hey, Mike, why don’t you take another crack at that headline?”

I hear it at least once a week from my internship supervisor, Leland Senn at The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Headlines are my Achilles’ heel.

No matter how easy a story is to edit, I almost always struggle with the headline. Sometimes the space I have is too short; other times it’s too long. Other times, I’ll get a good headline in only to realize that I need to write a sub-headline that I don’t feel is needed. At times, I’ve spent as much time writing headlines as I have editing the stories they’re for.

But I finally got some good advice, and I think I’ve got the solution. Stephen Merelman, the paper’s page 1A editor, noticed I was struggling and gave me some help. “Read your headline out loud,” he said. “If you sound like a tool when you read it, try writing it again.”

It was then I realized that I was trying to make each headline sound like one for some country-shaping event. I needed to relax, and I did. It helped.

Good headline writing takes time and experience. Thinking outside the box is mandatory in order to learn quickly. That sounds clichéd (if everyone could think outside the box at will, we’d be colonizing other galaxies by now), but it’s not as hard as it seems.

For example, my headline for this year’s Krispy Kreme Challenge read: “Racers finish Krispy Kreme run.” It was gaudy and clunky, and not entirely accurate (they weren’t racing, just running), but what was worse was I couldn’t think of anything else. I looked online the next day and found the story on the paper’s Web site. It sported the headline “6,000 people make doughnut run.”

Short, sweet and to the point. I’m sure there was some white space left in the headline box, but this business is about conveying information in the best way possible. It succeeded more than I did to that extent.

Headlines are about finding synonyms. Krispy Kreme becomes doughnut. Hollywood Video becomes video store. Rockstar Energy + Recovery Energy Supplement (with 3 percent lemon juice!) becomes energy drink. (Still with 3 percent lemon juice!)

It’s less about which words mean the same thing and more about what the words in question are. If I’m having a problem with a word in a headline, I now try to categorize it and use a broader, shorter term. It might not be specific, but it’s more or less the same thing. And while it’s not the solution to every headline problem, it’s enough to get out of a few jams until the experience kicks in.

So if you’re having headline problems, here’s my advice: Take a deep breath and relax. First, check to see if there are any obvious synonyms, such as “run” instead of “sprint.” Then, instead of looking sideways for synonyms, look upward to the broader category that encompasses the word.

If nothing else, it will expand your thinking. And that’s always a good thing.