So our headlines stink
A reader castigates us for lazily violating the principles of headline writing:
Your headlines repeatedly use forms of the verb "to be".
For example, a headline on the homepage of the website right now reads, "Two men are slain in shooting at city carryout".
As I'm sure your copy editors understand, this is a newspaper no-no because:
1) It slows down the reader;
2) It takes up precious headline space;
3) It's just plain not classy; and most importantly
4) It undermines the credibility of the reporter and, ultimately, the newspaper.
If your editors are having difficulty writing long-enough headlines, they find a solution that avoids the lazy decision of using a "to be" filler.
As the reader evidently knows, the conventions of traditional headline writing include omitting forms of to be as auxiliary verbs to save space. Using a comma in place of and is another; so is the omission of the definite and indefinite articles. These practices, instituted to save space, contribute to the clipped, elliptical style of the traditional headline.
What the reader is apparently not aware of is the trend in recent years toward more conversational headline language, wherever space permits, because the traditional headline language looks increasingly dated. In fact, despite Article 1 of the reader’s bill of impeachment above, it is the elliptical language that can slow down readers, forcing them to read a headline more than once to gather the sense of it.
At the national conferences of the American Copy Editors Society, workshops by the estimable Alex Cruden, former head of the Detroit Free Press copy desk, have invited civilians — ordinary readers — to comment on representative headlines, revealing that the reader often does not quickly grasp what the headline writer has intended. These readers prize plain language and clarity.
Article 2 insists that using auxiliary verbs is not "classy." How use of the language as it is idiomatically spoken and written lacks "class" eludes me. And Article 4, that headline language the reader can understand undermines the credibility of the publication, I find completely baffling.
Colleagues, readers, what do you make of this bill of particulars?