Monday, August 11, 2008

A Note to Dr. R's Labs

Key Words & Online Heds
  • KEY WORDS: For every headline you write in this lab you are expected to put above the headline several key words. I will take off points if they are missing.
  • For purposes of this class, one column = 2 inches
  • Also, every story you edit should also include an online headline of about 12 to 15 words labeled as the "online hed."

Finding Key Words For Headlines

Finding key words for headlines

By Frederick Vultee • University of Missouri •

After “semester upon semester of saying ‘The news isn't in the relative clause. The news isn't in the relative clause,’” Frederick Vultee devised this approach for helping his students find key words for headlines.


How to find key words for a headline

Find the first independent clause in the story and list the simple subject, simple predicate and direct object. In other words:

WHO _______________
did WHAT _______________
to WHOM ________________ ?

WHERE was it done? ______________________ ?

Now look for dependent clauses and participial phrases.

A participial phrase might tell you WHY
you care about the verb: _________________________________________

(A car bomb exploded in Beirut today, killing a former prime minister.)

A relative clause often tells WHY
you care about the subject or object: _______________________________

(The man who performed the world’s first heart transplant died today.)

REMEMBER: If your headline’s verb comes from a relative clause, you have the wrong headline:

Man performs heart transplant
– vs. –
Heart transplant pioneer dies

Which noun is more important to your story:

SUBJECT (think active voice)
OBJECT (think passive voice) ?

Can you omit any grammatical steps?

Smith files a lawsuit against Jones
subj verb direct object indirect object

Smith sues Jones
subj verb direct object

A man who was charged in last week’s robbery
subj relative clause prepositional phrase

A suspect in last week’s robbery
subj prepositional phrase

Science of Headline Writing

The Science of Headline Writing

1. No. 1 Rule: Headlines must tell the reader what the story's about

2. Headlines must be accurate

3. Headlines must be fair

4. Headlines must fit and fill the space allotted

5. The headline’s tone must be consistent with the nature of the story

6. The headline’s tone must be consistent with the personality of the publication

7. The headline can't say more than the story says

8. In other words, the story must support the headline

9. The headline needs to persuade the reader to read the story.

Headline Checklist – Things to Avoid

1. Inappropriate language or a tone that doesn't fit the story.

2. Exaggerating conflict, danger, criticism, etc.

3. Editorialization or words that suggest an opinion of the head-writer.

4. A "negative" head using the word "not.“

5. Conclusions the story doesn't back up.

6. Inappropriate assumptions or interpretations.

7. Piled-up adjectives or other modifiers that detract from clarity.

8. A "label head," unless omitting the verb helps the head or the count is so short that a "book title" head is the only way out.

9. Assumptions that the reader has been following the story daily.

10. Obscure names that readers won't instantly recognize.

11. Undue familiarity, often by using a person's first name.

12. Abbreviations or acronyms that are not instantly recognizable.

13. Jargon, which clouds the meaning for readers.

14. Cliches, which are neither creative nor compelling.

15. Meanings the reader won't "get" until the story is read.

16. Echoing the lede or stealing the punchline.

17. A hard-news head based on facts far down in the story.

18. Puns in heads on serious news stories.

19. Putting first-day heads on second-day stories.

20. Using "question" or "colon" heads routinely.

An Interview With John McIntyre

John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society ACES and an assistant managing editor at the Baltimore Sun. He likened writing headlines to a combination of playing Scrabble and completing a crossword puzzle.

Q: What should readers reasonably expect from headlines?

McIntyre: Accuracy, clarity and precision. Liveliness and originality are important to capturing the reader's interest, but they are secondary to accuracy.

Q: What challenges do copy editors face in meeting those expectations?

McIntyre: There is seldom enough time to polish and refine headlines as much as copy editors would like. And the lack of time also comes up against the fundamental challenge: distilling the sense of an entire article into half a dozen words.

Q: What are the uppermost cardinal rules of good headline writing?

McIntyre: Try to follow the vocabulary and syntax of conversational English insofar as you can. Avoid headlinese ("Solons slate parley") and wretched, obvious wordplay ("purr-fect" for any story about cats).

Q: What was the worst headline?

McIntyre: You want to write a famous headline? Write a bad one. "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" is still the most famous headline in American journalism.