How to write a good headline

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a New York Times article about how to write a good headline…

I spent roughly 10 years of my life working in a newsroom — first, a neighbourhood weekly, then a metropolitan daily. While I learned the rules of writing a good headline, I never developed much flair for it. Fortunately, that wasn’t my job. I was a section editor and that meant I assigned writers and edited their work; other editors (called “deskers” wrote the headlines.)

My pal Murray had the gift. I can no longer recall any of his headlines — I haven’t worked at the newspaper in more than 22 years — but he was equally adept at recipe titles and I can remember those. Two of my favourites? Chop Chop Ciopinno and Holy Moley Chili.

For anyone curious about the art of writing headlines, a recent New York Times article will enlighten. Titled “How to Write a Good Headline,” the story offers some interesting background and some specific suggestions. I especially liked the guidance on puns:

Above all else, avoid cheap punning. “Lots of newspapers rely on bad puns,” Ms. Schneider said. “For headline writers at The Times, employing a bad pun is a mortal sin.” The Times’s style guide offers a colorful elucidation: Obvious wordplay, such as Rubber Industry Bounces Back, “should be tested on a trusted colleague the way mine shaft air is tested on a canary. When no song bursts forth, start rewriting.”