Headline writing: Not just a copy editor’s task

I’m terrible at writing headlines. I love a good pun and alliteration is one of my favorite literary gems. I know those things are frowned upon in journalism. But I tend to use them in headlines anyway. It never hurts to try, right?

Even when I was a college reporter, I wrote headlines. Did they always get used? No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean I should have stopped writing them. Because there’s always that one headline that you get right.

For all the crappy headlines in the world, anybody can write one, good, provocative (or witty) headline. It just takes time. And a lot, a lot, a lot of practice.

One of things I remember the most from staff meetings when I was a new reporter at my college paper is that editors would say to come up with a headline. Maybe they’d use it. Maybe not. But even if they didn’t use it, it could help get ideas flowing for what they think the headline should be.

Plus, one of the benefits of writing your own headline is that it can help you focus your story. If you can’t come up with even a crappy headline that explains what is happening in your story or what the angle is, then you either need to think harder about the headline or write the story from a different angle.

You’ll never know if you’re good at writing headlines if you never try. Very few people are good at it. I’m not. My former editors weren’t always the best. Editors at major papers across the country may not even have a knack for it. But to just refuse to write headlines because you don’t think you can is ridiculous. Like Nike says, just do it.

So, with that said, I present to you three of my favorite headlines from the Alestle, only one of which I actually wrote:

‘A drop in the bucket’ — This story was about a nursing alumna from SIUE who was in Haiti volunteering. This is one of the rare occasions wherea quote headline can actually make a good impact on the reader — and the story.

Heroes helping half shells —It’s not often you get to write about turtles. But I had the opportunity, and, in my completely biased opinion, I think this headline was one of the best the editors came up with. Giving a nod to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, then-EIC Aren Dow came up with this gem on deadline. Playing on pop culture references isn’t always a good idea, but in this case, I think it worked out great. Cowabunga, dude!

Blagojevich ringtones cross the (expletive) line — This is one of the few headlines I came up with and that I’m actually proud of. Anyone who has heard anything about the drama surrounding former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich can understand and appreciate this. And working for a paper in Illinois, that’s exactly what I was going for.