There aren’t many hard-and-fast rules about writing headlines. All the basic ones – use a verb, fill the space, avoid bad breaks, don’t repeat the opening sentence – are fine, but they only get you so far. Specifically, they only get you as far as writing a headline for a simple news story; they fall a long way short when it comes to features.
It’s hard to codify what makes a good feature headline. So hard, in fact, that training courses frequently resort to offering negative advice rather than positive. With good reason, they warn against cliches, puns on people’s names and obscure pop culture references; but they never quite say what you should do instead – and they often make too little effort to distinguish between variations in tone and register. The difference between news and features may be hard to quantify, but the duty editor who waves through the most staccato telegraphese on agency stories will certainly notice an absence of magic at the top of the world-exclusive interview. “This doesn’t really sing, does it?” “It’s not quite … epic enough.”
So if you find yourself with the job of turning a prosaic feature hed into poetry, where do you start? Well, potentially almost anywhere. But if there’s one thing that can kill a sparkling phrase stone dead, it’s the blanket training-course advice always to leave out articles (a, an, the) and forms of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were) from headlines.
Those two conventions alone are largely responsible for creating the distinctive “sound” of news (NIXON IN CHINA; SMOKE SEEN OVER VATICAN). Indeed, they create such an urgent, no-time-to-waste tone that they are actually desirable for breaking stories. But if you follow them to the letter, they ruin the rhythm and flow of almost everything else (PARTING SUCH SWEET SORROW; WOODS DECAY, FALL; SINGLE MAN IN POSSESSION OF FORTUNE ‘IN WANT OF WIFE’ – SOURCES).
So I stick to a simple rule:
- Leave out the little words in news heds even if there’s space to put them in
- Leave in the little words in features heds even if there isn’t space for them
That means that if the articles and verbs make your feature headline too long, you don’t omit them – you abandon the whole headline. You start from scratch. You think of something else that will fit, with all its articles and supporting verbs, and use that instead. Whatever rhythm your original idea had will be lost the moment you leave out even a short word, because you’re leaving out a beat. That’s why it won’t “sing”. That, more often than you’d think, is where the magic disappears.
Let’s say that you’ve got a light-relief picture feature about a pop star misbehaving at an aquarium in Monaco, and you’ve decided to go for the obvious gag. When you write the headline, it has to be THE MAN WHO BROKE THE TANK AT MONTE CARLO, not MAN WHO BROKE TANK AT MONTE. The full-length original is, near as dammit, iambic pentameter. The shortened one – well, it isn’t anything at all. And if you’re alluding to a well-known phrase, or just subverting a cliche for comic effect, every word you miss out makes it harder for the audience to work out what you’re doing.
It sounds like the kind of rule that needs a lot of qualification, but actually it holds up well, as far as it goes, in nearly every situation. With one proviso: it might not work at the Daily Mail. There, every news story is also, at least implicitly, a feature on the state of the nation, and the spectacular multi-deck headline/standfirsts comment on the news even as they’re breaking it. So do you keep in the articles or drop them? Well, apparently, both:
So that’s kept (“The Communist”), dropped (“Maoist sect leader”), dropped (“collective”), kept (“a cult”), dropped (“home”), dropped (“woman captive”), dropped (“window fall”).
Associated Newspapers law unto self. But I still think it’s a rule worth sticking to whenever the difficult issue of “tone” gets raised by the higher-ups. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it starts you down the right track. Little things mean lot.