Monday, October 29, 2007

Writing 'Heds' Isn't as Easy as It Might Seem

Deborah Howell, the ombudsman for the Washington Post, writes of the power and perils of headlines. She quotes the Post's Editorial copy desk chief, Vince Rinehart, who says: "Perhaps the greatest challenge in copy editing is reading 1,000 sophisticated words on a complex topic and finding six words to tell the story and convey its nuance and tone, often with less than five minutes to do so." I'm not aware that our Universal Desk has written guidelines for headlines (when I was at the Dallas Morning News, I was on a committee to come up with a "mission statement" on the kind of headlines we were to write, and we ended up implementing it), but the Post does have such guidelines. Howell says The Post's stylebook states that headlines "must be accurate" and "capture the essence and tone of the story, as well as the most important element." Headlines should also "invite readers into the story. Use vivid words. Avoid headlinese . . . and deadening, bureaucratic language whenever possible. Headlines should be written in understandable, conversational English."'s Bill Walsh, The Post's National copy desk chief, listed many factors copy editors must keep in mind when writing headlines. Howell writes: "particularly important for Page One stories, (Walsh) said, is deciding whether to concentrate on the specifics of a story or on the bigger picture it might illustrate." Howell also writes about how page design figures prominently into the headline: For example, should there be a label? Does the story need a deck? Howell's column also goes into the differences when writing headlines on editorials and OpEd pieces. The ombudsman also says that even the good heads "often go unnoted except by the souls on the rim or by the slot." So since we're more likely to hear complaints rather than praise from readers about our headlines, perhaps we should be patting one another on the back more often. Nice head! You can read the entire column here.