Journalism is music encoded with words and letters instead of notes. Writing has cadence and rhythm. Words have sounds that work together or pull apart from one another.
These qualities are most often seen in titles, where publications have (and must use) creative freedom to draw readers into a story. The first words a reader encounters are even more important than the byline because people don’t read articles with boring titles.
Headlines are their own genre in the journalism world. As my adviser says, “Write a great one, and you can take a three-martini lunch.”
According to Roy Peter Clark, titles must be “tighter than a haiku” and more succinct than a tweet.
One to eight words have to stand together to sell a piece that could be thousands of words long. Tens of thousands if we’re talking books.
Clark continues: “Even within the limit of eight words, the writer can use the tools of grammar, syntax, slang, punctuation, diction and narrative to open a door to tone, voice and meaning.”
Headlines that convey those qualities are difficult to write. We don’t shy away from covering a tough topic in a story, so there’s no reason to balk at the thought of improving our most influential sales pitch to readers.
Yet how much time is spent on headlines? And how many hours do we use to report, write, edit and check facts in a story? For most pieces, the difference is enormous.
Here’s to sinking a little more time into those titles.