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The art of writing headlines

Page 2 of 2 -- Sometimes we "spice it up, but to a point," he says. Readers might doze off with "Senate to vote on budget today" but not with the still-accurate, "Budget showdown today."

Stories in which the main idea is based on sources must accurately echo that in the lead, however awkward it sounds. (So-and-so "said to be stepping down" is one example from the Cabinet shakeup.)

If readers see examples in which the attribution rule is not followed, or headlines are otherwise inaccurate, they should feel free to complain. Headline writers are fallible, like the rest of us. But they make fewer errors than one might expect. So far this year, 22 headlines have required correction or clarification. But that's 22 out of what I roughly estimate to be more than 60,000 headlines written since Jan. 1.

Headline mistakes, when they happen, are highly visible and long-remembered. Some editors still lament the day two decades ago when "literacy" was mistakenly used instead of "illiteracy" -- as in, a campaign to "stamp out literacy."

Readers understandably have high expectations for headlines, and never was that more true than on the morning of Oct. 28, when the Globe announced the Red Sox World Series victory with a huge but simple "YES!!!" Some readers wanted more.

But that much-anticipated headline was not chosen lightly. Editors fielded suggestions for days. Everyone knew this headline could go down in history. With victory at hand, editors made nearly a dozen different versions of Page 1, each with a different headline, to see which worked best, said Deputy Managing Editor Michael Larkin. "On top of the world" was in early editions, but "YES!!!" won for the final.

But that was an unusual situation. Most news headlines are written by one copy editor and reviewed by one or two other editors before first edition. The time allowed typically ranges from 15 minutes to just one or two on deadline.

What makes a good headline writer? Knowledge of pop culture helps, as does knowledge of history, literature, and, of course, the news. But it also requires a special knack, imagination, and respect for accuracy, not to mention lightning speed.

"It's one thing to be a great headline writer," says Jrolf, "but it's a whole other thing to be a great headline writer on deadline."

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com. 

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