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The art of writing headlines

EACH OMBUDSMAN, and each newspaper, defines the job differently. Here at the Globe the mission is to demystify as well as critique. So, between controversies, I try to pull back the curtain and explain how things work. Today's topic: headlines.

More than a few readers are under the mistaken impression that a headline is written by the reporter who wrote the story. And at least a few believe that headlines on political stories are crafted by the editorial board to lend a particular slant. Not so.

Headlines, arguably the most immediately powerful element of the paper, are generally the creative work of anonymous (to readers) and underappreciated copy editors. After editing a story for spelling, grammar, and clarity, they come up with a few inviting words that reflect its essence.

It is a fine art -- part Zen exercise in minimalism, part high-stakes Boggle game -- and not as easy as it looks. Doubters can pick a story from today's front page and try crafting their own headline. Keep it to six or seven words, to fit a standard layout. Not that hard? Try doing it in two minutes or less. (If you wish, send your work to, with "headline" in the subject field. I'll respond to as many as I can.)

Readers commonly think headlines are written and then the space is made to accomodate them. But it's the other way around.

Various rules further complicate matters: no prepositions at the end of the top line, no headlines that parrot the first paragraph of the story, no slang, and no overused phrases. If you see a " 'Tis the season . . ." headline around the holidays, it's because someone forgot to read the memo. And use "mull" only if you have to. Also discouraged: any headline with "continued."

"We always operate on the edge of cliche, but we try not to go too far," says Page 1 Editor Charles Mansbach.

Readers sometimes wonder why the front page of the paper delivered to their home in, say, Framingham, differs from the one in the downtown newsstand. The answer, in part, is because Mansbach and crew will finetune Page 1 headlines over the course of three or four editions.

It's a tricky business. Light-hearted features require a light-hearted headline. "You can just kill a story with a headline that is straight and flat," says Night Editor David Jrolf, overseer of the copy desk.

Economy of words is essential. When Colin Powell resigned last week, the first draft headline read: "Powell resigns from Cabinet." But, notes Mansbach, by making it simply "Powell resigns" there was room to add another angle; thus, Tuesday's third edition headline was "Shift on way as Powell resigns."   Continued...

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