Friday, March 19, 2010

Looking for a headline

EVERY GOOD HEADLINE WRITER occasionally writes boring or so-so headlines. Some newspapers almost require it. They don't want you to go for the gusto. But that's rare.

Years ago, I had a story about Jose Canseco returning from the injury list. He was hot, hitting a bunch of home runs upon his return, so my headline became "Canseco struggling? No way, Jose." They liked it. No, they loved it.

About that time, I was writing a headline for a story about Frank Layden leaving the Utah Jazz (and all of the behind-the-scenes back-biting) behind. I was playing with headlines, and my boss noticed "Layden leaves all of that Jazz behind," so I used it. If he liked it, the big bosses probably would like it, too. Apparently they did.

Another time, John Cook was tied for the lead in the Buick Open, and I went for a cute headline: "Cook, three others tied in Buick." You could see four guys tied up and gagged in a blue Buick, and that headline was on the wall of that newspaper 10 years later. Now, about 20 years later, it's long gone, thank goodness.

At least once, I've had a "great" headline taken away. I was editing an outdoor story on trying to score unusual deer horns. My headline was "The Horns of a Dilemma," but they used something less showy. They said that dilemma involved two choices, so it didn't fit. A dilemma is a situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive. With that definition, they're right; but it bothered me.

Another time, I was editing an outdoors story about Canada geese flying south and landing in the sights of hunters. We were doing what we call a bonker head for that story, so it wasn't a normal headline. It turned out "When It's Cold, Duck!" That, of course, also plays on the term cold duck (something that was popular when I was in college). I admit it was mixing geese and ducks, but, hey, geese gotta live, too.

About that time, I got really paranoid about headlines because they were always being questioned. In fact, I asked a guy about the cold duck headline to be sure it'd pass muster.

Another day, I had a story about a rainy day at the Masters; Vijay Singh was atop the leaderboard as he overcame the bad weather, and my headline was "At Augusta, it's Singh in the rain" (obviously a play on the movie Singing in the Rain). I asked a guy what he thought -- he was considered the best headline writing at the paper -- and he loved it. So I went with it.

The big boss later called me at home and asked if I wrote that head. I said yes, and he said it was the best headline at the paper in at least five years. I was happy but confused. Some of my "great" headlines were overturned; others were loved. How did I know which was which?

I have to admit that I've missed the mark on a headline or two, and the other guys have changed them. I didn't mind because I want to get the best headline in there possible. If they think of something better, great.

THE "BEST" HEADLINE I've ever written didn't make its way into a newspaper. And it probably wouldn't. It was insensitive, but funny.

I was in a college editing class, and our teacher had an exercise for us. He read a story, and we had to write a three-column, 36-point headline. I wrote eight headlines, but this one sticks out.

This guy decides to commit suicide, so he shuts the windows and puts blankets around the base of the door to keep air out. He turns on the gas, lies down and awaits the long goodbye.

A half hour later, he wakes up and realizes the gas has gone out and air is getting into his apartment. It's a sign, he decides, so he opens the windows. He walks toward the plate-glass sliding doors and, in celebration of life, lights a cigarette...

And the explosion blows him through the glass. He has cuts all over his body and various broken bones, but, fortunately, the explosion is so powerful that it draws attention, and paramedics save him.

Most of my headlines were safe, and I don't remember any of them. One or two of them were clever. Then there was this one:

"Suicide Attempt Backfires."

I've never had the nerve to see if it'd actually fit a 36-point, three-column hole, and I doubt any managing editor in the country would use it. I've written better headlines, but that one sticks in my mind.

If you want a cold, funny and accurate headline, that one fits.


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  1. Tom.

    Thanks for sharing. It is tempting some times to write tacky headlines. I often write them in my mind and don't dare type them, in case they mistakenly made it into print!

    After reading your post, I reviewed a few past issues of the "North Oaks News." Headlines I've written and run include:

    "Forging into the past" over a photo of a blacksmith

    "West improves East" -- an Eagle Scout with the last name of West who planted gardens at the City's East Rec Center

    "Canoe storage racks Board" -- homeowners' association board trying to decide if they needed more canoe racks

    "Size matters" -- story about the need to use larger letters for readability of signs on roadside bulletin boards

    Never heard any reaction from the public, but they were enjoyed in the press room!


  2. My best ever was for a review of a restaurant/strip club.

    There was also a subhed, but the main hed was "The naked lunch"