Student guest post: Is wordplay “Linning” or losing?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Kevin Minogue is a senior journalism and political science major from Reston, Va. He is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel, as well as a former intern at The Fayetteville Observer.

Earlier this year, the success of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin brewed up a perfect storm for epic headline writers across the country. For those tasked with writing a paper’s front-page headline – better known in big cities as those snarky puns that persuade pedestrians to pony up two bucks for a copy of the day’s issue on their walk to work – Lin was the ideal subject of a clever play on words.

After all, how often does a Harvard-educated, couch-surfing, Asian point guard lead the New York Knicks to their most successful spell in recent memory? And how often does that hero’s name contain elements of a common preposition, prefix and suffix?

Not often, most New York headline writers concluded. The headlines during Lin’s roughly month-long reign ranged from the witty and original to the corny, the forced, the poorly contrived, the questionable and the … woops. After that last headline cost the ESPN employee who wrote it his job, the headline hubbub settled briefly.

But on Easter weekend, when a country bumpkin named Bubba used a pink driver to throttle golf balls more than 350 yards on his way to winning the world’s most storied golf tournament, the scribes of over-the-top headlines feasted once more.  Most of the former Lin-obsessed headline writers in New York focused on Sunday’s big Knicks win, but plenty of smaller papers and online editions posted Masters headlines with ill-fitting wordplay.

I suppose this British paper felt obliged to use the obvious Sherlock Holmes reference, but it doesn’t work when nothing about Watson’s one-stroke, playoff victory was elementary. In fact, if not for a hooking moonshot from the trees that defied the laws of basic physics, Watson would have gone home wearing only his buttoned-up polo.

Many other papers, including this Texas publication and this Utah paper, made obvious references to Watson’s bubblegum-colored attire. While I get the attempt at wordplay, the story is about his victory, not solely his clothes. It’s also poor form to poke fun at the man’s outfit when he wore it as a way to raise money for charity.

These headline hiccups didn’t flop quite as badly as the Lin headlines, but they would be better served sticking to the main premise of the story. Headline writers can still use clever wordplay, and I, for one, hope that they do. But here are a few of my rules for ensuring that your witticisms are appropriate:

1. Make sure the headline is not offensive to any particular group. Wordplay is funny, but not if it makes fun of you. Your readership is generally composed of a mix of ethnicities, religions and sexes, so try to avoid wordplay that hinges any of these items. Otherwise, you may offend and alienate a significant portion of your readership.

2. Be original. The point of wordplay is to be creative, and clichés are short on imagination. You won’t get your desired result from a “clever” headline if five other papers wrote the same thing that day.

3. Make it subject-appropriate. There’s no sense in thinking up clever headline wordplay if it has nothing to do with a story. The reader might initially be drawn to your front page, but he or she will quickly lose both interest and respect in your publication upon finding that the title is merely for show. The purpose of a headline is to give readers a sense of what they are about to read. Don’t lose sight of this.

4. Don’t force wordplay. If it’s not there, it’s not there. The headline should instantly jump out at you as you’re writing. If not, don’t try to convince yourself that it works and end up with a headline that isn’t apt. As is the case with a bad comedian, once you have lost your audience, you’ve lost them for good.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. Feel free to post your own or offer examples of other bad headline wordplay in the comments below.