Today I come to praise the headline writer’s art.
And the impetus for my thoughts is this gem from last Friday’s sports page: “Life of no Brian.”
The headline, playing off the well-known Monty Python movie, covered a column in which Daily Herald Bears writer Bob LeGere reflected on the challenges facing the team with onetime superstar linebacker Brian Urlacher out of the lineup. It was to me that most exquisite of rarities, when a play on words — and only four of them at that — perfectly captures the spirit and meaning of the story or column it describes and does it so straightforwardly that it doesn’t betray the smallest hint of pride in its cleverness. This one had an added dose of humility, being just a comparatively small secondary headline on the page.
Most of the great work of a copy editor is found not in what is published but in what is not published. The numbers that don’t add up to the sum reported in a story. The incorrect spelling of the mayor’s name. The source identified by a last name only. The extraneous “the,” the misplaced modifier, the malicious accusation, the malaprop, the missing word. An uncountable litany of errors, actually, that you never see thanks to the skill and care of attentive copy editors.
Yes, mistakes do make it into print when we’re dealing with tens of thousands of words a day being constantly changed, repeated and updated under strict deadlines, and they make it into print more often than we want. But that’s a topic for another day.
Today I just want to call your attention to the copy editor’s excellence you do see — the well-turned phrase that somehow manages in just a few words not only to make you want to read a story but also to accurately summarize what it says.
Like “Life of no Brian.”
Or, on a story about the challenges paralysis victim Rob Komosa embraced: “Unplanned life of accomplishment”
Or, on a story about actress Lily Tomlin channeling her own mother in her recent television and movie roles: “Tomlin remembers mama in ‘Admission,’ ‘Malibu.’
Or, over a picture of Wheeling’s Danni Allen as her victory is announced in the “Biggest Loser” weight-loss reality television competition: “The biggest winner.”
I could go on and on. You’ll find something especially creative and insightful nearly every day.
Not every headline is, of course. Not every headline should be. The purpose of a headline is, first, to accurately summarize the story it describes. In many cases, we may also want to throw in a little spice to entice you to read a story and spend more time with the paper or our website, but headlines like “Murder suspect lived nearby” or “Dow climbs for seventh straight day,” the types of headline that naturally predominate, serve perfectly well. Cleverness usually will only detract from headlines like these.
Which serves to identify another skill of good copy editors. They know when to apply extra creativity and when not to.
And when it’s called for, when the story, picture and headline all come together in a sparsity of perfect words at just the right time, it’s a joy to experience. The ability to create that little moment of joy is a skill worth celebrating.
Jim Slusher, email@example.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.