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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."

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 

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