Archive for the ‘Copy Editing With Flair’ Category

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

January 11, 2008

“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

‘A copy editor? What’s that? Why?’

January 7, 2008

Friends and family rarely question my intentions for wanting to be a journalist. But when I tell them which area of journalism I want to pursue — copy editing — they look at me bewilderedly and launch into a barrage of questions: “A copy editor? What’s that? Why?”

There are countless reasons copy editors choose the career paths they do, and this is mine:

As I pointed to two stacks of newspapers tilted slightly on my front porch, I said, “They look like the Leaning Tower of Pizza.”

“It’s Pisa,” my mom said, chuckling. “And you better eat breakfast before your paper route if pizza’s already on your mind.”

I was a paperboy for the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska the summer before my sophomore year in high school. Little did I know then, on my first day delivering newspapers, that I soon would have a craving — not for pizza, but for print journalism.

It was thrilling and fascinating reading the stories each day before I delivered the papers and then telling neighbors which stories were the best.

To continue to experience this exhilarating feeling, I became a copy editor working for newspapers including the The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Des Moines Register, The Lincoln Journal Star and The Scottsbluff Star-Herald.

As a copy editor, I help influence readers’ decisions of what to read with the headlines I create, the edits I make to reporters’ articles and the photo captions I weave together.

For the next few days as part of the copy desk for The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, my skills in those areas will be tested and honed with the help of Jen Balderama and Kaly Soto, both editors at The Times.

To learn more about copy editors and what they do, or to learn how to write better, visit these Web sites:

— Brian Anthony Hernandez