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Headlines – learn from the BBC

August 23, 2011

I find headlines difficult to write, and it follows that I also find it difficult to train other people to write them. I have been working on it today, thinking aloud into this blog. On the principle that good examples are a strong starting point, I have taken a selection from BBC News to illustrate what seem to be the main rules of the game.

Short

Not one of my randomly selected BBC headlines was over six words long. I don’t imagine that is a coincidence. The longer the headline, the smaller the font size and the less impact it will have. A large number counts as a word for this purpose, as in:

100,000 back Hillsborough appeal

Concise

Headline writers eliminate every word that readers can fill in for themselves. This requires very special skill and no doubt plenty of practice. Notice that you don’t need the word ‘people’ in the Hillsborough example above. It’s not going to be penguins, is it?

Traps are everywhere though. They lie in the many different ways that the same word can be used in English, and in the possibility of associating the wrong pairs of words. This headline is only just decipherable in my opinion:

Abuse image teacher spared jail

Is ‘abuse’ a verb here (rhymes with the blues) and was someone swearing at a painting? Is this image-teacher a photography coach or an instructor at water-colour classes? No, we are dealing with a teacher who has committed image-abuse (noun – rhymes with juice).

Here’s another example of words with multiple meanings causing headline headaches:

Eurozone manufacturing contracts

This could be about new contracts (emphasis on the ‘con’) for manufacturers in this part of the world – good news. Alas, it is not. The article explains that manufacturing activity in the eurozone shrank in August for the first time in two years. So ‘contracts’ is a verb (emphasis on the ‘tracts’). The writer could have chosen ‘Eurozone manufacturing shrinks’ (I prefer it) but perhaps the Beeb didn’t want to imply that psychoanalysts were appearing on the production lines of the Ruhr.

Relevant

This sounds obvious, but it’s sometimes quite tricky. It means relevant to the reader – and if you are the BBC, you have an awful lot of readers. In this headline:

Comedy producer Davies dies at 72

just ‘Davies’ would not do. It’s quite a common name and John Howard Davies who produced Fawlty Towers is not as famous as John Cleese, so the readers of this headline needed to be told that this particular Davies was a comedy producer.

In this headline:

Four months for Facebook riot post

the writer didn’t name the person who got four months because the readers have no idea who he is. They know Facebook though, and they know about the riots (pretty devastating and only just over a week ago).

Present tense

A lot of headlines avoid tense, and some even do without verbs. (This one is not about a bouncer having an argument):

Heavy clashes at Gaddafi compound

But when there is a verb, it is usually in the present tense. This makes the message seem more immediate. It also often happens, in English, to be the shortest form of the verb. This dude has lost his battle, but the headline stays in the present:

Druid loses battle over remains

All headline examples are taken from www.bbc.co.uk on 23 August 2011

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