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A clinic in headline writing Inside N&E

I read recently that the average American reads only about a book a year. I’m sure the number is greater in higher education—among both faculty and students—but it made me realize: I guess I’m not “average” (at least not this year—I’m working on my sixth since around the start of the year).

Just days ago, I bought four more—one about the FCC, two on media ownership diversity, and one about teaching communication. They should keep me occupied during my free time for the remainder of the summer. (It’s pleasure reading, believe it or not. You see, reading is one of my favorite pastimes—and, despite my entry into the blogosphere, I still much prefer holding a book in my hands to reading text on a screen.)

What’s this got to do with “Behind the Scenes of RIT University News”? Not much—except, despite my eagerness to begin reading my new books, it was an old one that I unexpectedly found myself recently rereading: Headlines and Deadlines, by Robert Garst and Theodore Bernstein, a couple New York Times’ editors.

By “old,” I mean something like 25 years old (giving you an idea about my longstanding interest in news and writing, I bought it new). But it’s timeless—and a great refresher for anyone in the news business.

A portion of the book, as its title implies, focuses on headlines—specifically on how to write good ones. Those who have ever tried their hand at the craft know it’s truly an art—and one of the most challenging forms of writing (which many readers probably take for granted).

At News & Events, most headlines are written by Vienna (as managing editor and copy editor). But during final proofing, other editors and I occasionally suggest revisions. So, as another way of taking you “inside the pages” (as Vienna did in her recent post on front-page design) and to share more about the craft of writing (one of my favorite topics), here’s advice from Garst and Bernstein (along with some examples from News & Events):

• Use short, easily understood words and strong verbs
Campaign exceeds $300 million goal
• Omit non-essential words, such as articles
RIT students develop deep-sea explorer (“a” omitted)
• Present tense describes past event
FIRST competition draws hundreds (better than “drew hundreds”)

    Other pointers

    • Tell the single most important part of the story, and be specific
    • Highlight only news that’s included in the story (sounds basic, but look at certain publications and you might be surprised)
    • As a general rule, readers want to know what did happen or what will happen—not what did not happen or what continues to happen
    • Most abbreviations are “taboo”
    • Don’t editorialize

      For those interested in more on the craft of writing, I highly recommend James Kilpatrick’s always entertaining and informative weekly column, “Covering the Courts.” His July 16 column included an amusing anecdote about a recent headline in USA Today—showing that all writers (and editors) are human.

      1. Pete
        Jul 22

        Good tips :)

        On a somewhat related topic, here are a handful of mistakes that bloggers can make: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/weblogs.html

      2. Mike Saffran
        Jul 24

        That's great info, from Jakob Nielsen, in the link you provided, Pete. In particular, I like his advice on links and link titles. Just this morning, I was thinking that it seems standards and guidelines for linking are still evolving. For example, in an article, "The J-School Boom," on insidehighered.com, the word "reported" wouldn't have been my choice for the link. Instead, I would've chosen the word "survey" earlier in the sentence. But neither is incorrect as there are no hard-and-fast rules.

      3. Silandara
        Jul 26

        I've never envied Vienna her headline writing role. I feel like I could be good at it, but rarely feel like I know what I'm doing - that also translates into writing blog headlines unfortunately. So I appreciate the headline writer primer, Mike. Good things to keep in mind.

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        The Tiger Beat takes you behind the scenes with the members of RIT University News—the news and public relations division of Rochester Institute of Technology. Get the “story behind the story” and an insider’s look at who we are and what we do to publicize RIT news.
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