More than 20 years ago, I was editing 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 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 the same guy what he thought — he was considered the best headline writer 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 the Singh 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 missed the mark on a headline or two (or a couple of dozen), and the other guys changed them. I didn't mind because I want to get the best headline in there possible. If they can think of something better, great.
CONTACT: I can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.
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Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie