The headline problem

A reader wrote our managing editor about this headline in a recent Under the Dome column: Edwards waits on Secret Service.

The reader chastised us for using the colloquial “waits on” for the standard “waits for.” In this case, though, I think he misread the headline. John Edwards, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was not waiting for Secret Service protection. He was waiting to ask for Secret Service protection. Maybe a punctuation trick helps: He was waiting — on the issue of Secret Service protection.

The shorthand that we headline writers use can give readers the wrong impression or leave them confused. We have only a few words to tell readers the essence of a story. The “waits on” head had the additional challenge of being a small, one-line subhead.

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I have written thousands of headlines in my 30-year career, and I think I am still learning. Every day I find it challenging to come up with the few words that will be right for a headline. Here are a few guidelines I try to follow. In my job, I am writing headlines for feature stories, rather than news stories, but most of the guidelines apply to either task.

1. Be accurate. Check your head against the facts, purpose and tone of the story. They should match.2. Try not to use the same words the writer used in the story. Come up with a different way to say the same thing or to get to the heart of the story. Don’t steal a particularly colorful turn of phrase.3. Give the reader an incentive to read the story. Sell the story and don’t give away the punch line.4. Look for ambiguity. Can the headline be read in a way that would be inaccurate, confusing or embarrassing?5. Pay attention to the sound of the headline. Try for a pleasing combination of words that the reader will understand immediately.6. Play with words or with phrases, if it’s appropriate.7. Think of a headline as it will appear out of context, as on a Web page without the accompanying photos or graphics. Does it still make sense or have appeal? Sometimes, a headline that is ambiguous actually works well on a Web page because it provokes a reader to click on it just to see what in the world it means.And, of course …8. Check the grammar.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.