The impossible poetry of headline writing

I’ve learnt lots in my newish role as occasional Sunday Times sub editor.

I’ve learnt that the Sunday Times prefers its numbers as words up to nine, not 10 as I’ve always done. I’ve learnt that they prefer learnt to learned. I’ve learnt that they don’t like ‘like’ but they do like ‘such as’. And I’ve learnt that if you allow the phrase ‘any time soon’ you can expect withering looks from the editor very soon indeed.

But perhaps the hardest lesson has been how to write a decent headline. I’ve always felt reasonably confident about my headline-writing skills, having been required to think of up to ten a day while running an online corporate news service for several years.

I used to get the occasional email from colleagues congratulating me on the cleverness, wit or otherwise noteworthiness of my headlines. When a new head of the comms team I was part of arrived and started imposing her ultra-literal approach to headline writing I resented her input enormously. Leave me to do what I do and I’ll leave you to do what you do, I frequently muttered. To myself. Out of her earshot.

But I had no idea how difficult it could be to come up with a decent headline under pressure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been reduced to a sweaty wreck after working on a Sunday Times story for perhaps 45 minutes only to find myself sitting there half an hour later, still agonising over the bloody headline.

“You’re trying too hard”, a wise fellow sub advised. “Just relax and they will come.”

So I sit there, fists clenched, head bursting, furiously willing myself to relax and free up the creative channels so the magic can flow and the poetry can appear.
But to do that successfully when the pressure’s on takes the kind of self-control you only usually find in old men sporting wispy beards and inscrutable smiles and sitting alone on mountaintops.

My favourite book about writing, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, which remains as relevant today as it was when she wrote it in 1936, talks about how every writer has two practitioners within: the artist and the editor.

To produce anything worthwhile, the artist must first be allowed untrammelled access to the page. The creative channel must be fully open and the muse fully unleashed or the result will not be all it could be.

To analyse the output of this stage of the process while it’s underway is to stifle it. So get the words down and don’t worry about them. Walk away, go for a bike ride (my advice, not Dorothea’s), have a cup of tea (likewise)…

Then, some days later at least, unleash the editor. Let that eagle-eyed, hypercritical monster loose on your precious words and let him pour scorn on them, slash them to pieces, or even kill them. For while he can recognise your brilliance when (if?) it comes, he can also spot your mistakes and misjudgements from a mile away. And to let him expose and expunge them is to make yourself a better writer, however much it may hurt to see your babies slaughtered.

But headline-writing subs do not have this luxury of time. They are required to muster the two alter egos simultaneously – something that shouldn’t be possible. It’s like seeing Jekyll and Hyde at the same time! You’re messing with the very laws of creativity!

So you’re destined to criticise your work even as you’re producing it – a recipe for disaster if ever I saw one.

All of which is very interesting – to me, anyway – but doesn’t help to solve the problem of how to write a decent headline under pressure.

Perhaps I should follow my wise colleague’s advice and take up yoga – or perhaps I should start growing a wispy beard…

This entry was posted on Monday, June 27th, 2011 at 4:49 pm and is filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “The impossible poetry of headline writing”

  1. Avril says:

    Those tabloids – you gotta love them. And the art of the witty picture caption seems to be dead. The Economist used to have a brilliant one. Will look up that book – like your analogy as the editor as the monster. I used to edit/write/produce/sub a weekly newspaper in Glasgow with a handful of freelance contributors. At least it was weekly but Tuesday nights and Wednesday afternoons became agony. Amazingly (to the best of my knowledge) there were no major gaffes. Even when I had to prewrite the story about the Pope in Glasgow (as it coincided with everyone (ie ME being on holiday). Thank the Lord, everything went to plan and I didn’t have to return from the Outer Hebrides for a rewrite

  2. martinthomas says:

    Yes Avril, it astonishes me how much work we used to get through on local papers. I balk at doing more than a couple of articles a week now. I used to have to do eight before lunch on the Bath Chronicle (probably all riddled with errors mind…)

    I’ve just been looking up a few wonderful headlines – found one about the closure of a library in Essex: ‘Book lack in Ongar’


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