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Heads above the rest

It is little understood among the reading public that the headlines on newspaper articles are not written by the authors of the articles. They are instead written by my fellow anonymous drudges, the copy editors (Editing on computer terminals, we can no longer properly call ourselves ink-stained wretches).

Generally, what filters back to the copy desk from the readership is complaint. Sometimes because a headline is inaccurate or ill-judged in tone. Sometimes simply because the reader does not like what it says. Sometimes because the reader does not fully understand the limitations of condensing the sense of a 1,000-word article into eight words, mostly of one or two syllables.

And yet, sometimes we pull it off. I offer you some examples of recent headlines in The Sun that display merit you may have overlooked. I also drag the names of the headline writers out of obscurity for a moment in the light.

$1.7 million Mercedes

hits zero in 10 blocks

Jerry Bayne summarized an article about an automobile that conked out after being driven 10 blocks, leading to a lawsuit. Jerry also wrote the headline for an article about a Chinese electric automobile with a top speed of 23 mph:

One for the road — slowly

For a Dan Rodricks column on extravagant executive compensation, Paul Bendel-Simso came up with this.


set sights

on a really

gross profit

As some people got jittery over the approach of June 6, 2006, the date with the ominous abbreviation, Peggy Cunningham wrote

On 6-6-06, no apocalypse

If you’re reading this, the world hasn’t ended yet

Maryann James had to come up with a compact headline for a feature on a library Web site designed for children under 5.

Baby steps toward books

For a business article, John McClintock produced this.

New Microsoft leaders

Face a tightening Web

Software king struggles to find profit beyond its core business

When Katie Couric made her interminable farewell to morning television, Emeri O’Brien produced a headline for the news story in the features section.

For Couric, ‘Today’ is past

For a food section article on the ability of diners to take unconsumed wine from a restaurant, Linda Schubert provided this.

Why don’t you put a cork in it — and take it home

Robin Smith had an extremely tight head spec for a Page One article about the traffic snarl that developed as a religious convention drew 50,000 people into Baltimore.

Prayers and oaths

And Robert Swann came up with an evocative headline for an article on how Kristen Cox, Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr.’s running mate, came to be blind.

Losing sight of the stars was just the beginning

My colleagues on the copy desk struggle every day to make the headlines accurate, clear, succinct and — as you see, whenever the opportunity offers itself — lively and imaginative. It is not a task that most people could do at all, much less do so well.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (1)


Catchy headlines are fun, but sometimes copy editors can get themselves into trouble, as this example shows, found in Raleigh's News and Observer:

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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