I was discussing press releases and headline writing recently with a technology writer friend. One thing that many first-time authors and the people they write about are blissfully unaware is that magazines and newspapers usually employ specific people, sub-editors and headline writers, to chop up any author’s glorious prose and to stick an entirely different title up-top and call it the headline. This is not a criticism, it’s just a fact of journalism.
However, it often comes as a shock to many new writers who may have imagined their witty strapline needed no tweaking or editing all. A shock, you say? Well, certainly. The headline is designed to both grab your attention and primarily make you want to buy the publication with the intention of reading the article. If it is left as a flat abstract or esoteric phrase who’s going to grab the paper?
Compare and contrast: “Member of royal household indulges in illicit substance by inhalation” with “Dopey Prince”
The former is obviously a ludicrously overblown working title that an author might cut down to something like “Royal admits to smoking cannabis”, but a subbie would prefer something even crisper, with a deliberate ambiguity about whom the article is talking. Is it the artist formerly known as Prince and now known as Prince again but giving it away for free? Or is it one of the Royal Family? If so, which one? Intrigued? You will be. Subeditors and headline writers are the royals of keyword use, they are now and always were, even before we were all worrying about link bait and search engine optimisation online.
Anyway, the upshot of this discussion was that I thought I would dig out some of my old cuttings from the The Grauniad and elsewhere and do a comparison of the titles I originally gave the article and the final headlines used by the paper…if there’s an online link to them, I’ll point to those too, so you can get to read what I had to say (assuming the headline grabs you). In fact, now that I think of it, maybe I should not say which one is which and simply link to the online article (where there is one) from both my title and the final headline. You can guess which you think it will be and find out when you make the click.
A blue light for change – Guardian – The butterfly effect
Be of good cheer – Guardian – Bread and stuffing chemistry
The Genome Chose Its Alphabet With Care – Science – Genetic alphabet soup
A cup of tea is no mug’s game – Guardian – Tea – best drink of the day for diabetics
Sweaty way to beat stress – Guardian – Sweaty stress busters
Shy Chemicals Offer a Solution – Science – Greening chemistry with non-stick molecules
The dating game – Guardian – A trunk call to be sniffed at
Finally, sometimes the sub-editor merely tweaks a title as in the case of my article in the July-August issue of StarDate magazine:
Cosmic Efforts Shed Light on Dark Universe – Cosmic Efforts Shed Light on Dark Energy
I’ll add a few more when the opportunity arises. I have dozens in the archives but will have to dig out backup discs to find the original pre-edited article and accompanying title.