In headline writing, spreading the news is only part of the game

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“Nothing’s hard if you know how to do it,” my mom always says. “All you have to do is learn how.” She told me that when I struggled with reading, having fallen behind my classmates in first grade, and if I shared with her my headline-writing woes today, she’d say the same thing.

Headline writing is the poetry of journalism, requiring careful attention to accuracy, cadence, word choice and concision — all at once. And if you don’t make the concoction with the right ingredients, you risk losing your readers, disappointing the reporter (who may have slaved for hours over the piece) and, well, looking like a baboon.

When I try to write headlines, I feel like my brain is devolving. Solid, hard-working words disappear, and I come up with gibberish. Take, for instance, the night I had to come up with a headline for James Wagner’s article on people named Hitler. In my quest to do his story justice, I came up with this mishmash, all scribbled on a piece of scrap paper:

“How People Grapple With Hitler Name”
“When Hitler Enters the Room”
“Prank Calling Hitler”
“Hitler Name”
“Horror of Times”
“This is Hitler. Can I Help You?”
“Living Hitlers Share Daily Tales”

“Hitler namesake”
“Hitlers Roam With Weary”

“The Life of a Hitler”

“Hitler Lifestyle”

“Hitler namesake makes for interesting challenging lifestyles.”

Then, in one corner of the page, “No, We’re Not Related.”

I turned to Jen Balderama, of The New York Times, in desperation, who suggested I think about situations — how these people converse or interact with other people in their lives. She had a good idea: “Mr. Hitler, I Presume?”

That’s when it clicked: “No, I’m the Other Hitler.”

It was a hit, and up it went on the Web site.

Here at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, I’ve gathered a toolbox of tricks from Jen and Don Hecker, the director, to deal with headline writing.

From Jen, I’ve learned to approach headline writing like a game rather than like a trip to the guillotine. She says to start with a handful of keywords that capture the story’s essence. And when you consider how to string them together, avoid clichés; avoid overdone phrases that will make people groan. Keep in mind where the story is placed, too, so you don’t repeat the same words or ideas in multiple headlines on a page. But most of all, I learned that headline writing is part skill, part art, and it develops not overnight but through years of reading and paying careful attention to the English language.

From Don, I’ve learned to slow down between the story and the headline, to let the reporter’s work soak in my brain first. Don says to skip the first three grafs of a story and hunt for the story’s heart. More than once, he would prod me with questions about the article, as if I had written it, forcing me to summarize it to him in a simple six- to 10-word sentence. Once you have a sentence, you can chop or substitute words and play with the structure.

While I can’t say headline writing feels completely intuitive yet, I can say I’m on the right track. After all, I’ve spent more than 10 years writing — and that didn’t develop overnight, either.

— Lauren LePage

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