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The Washington Post's John Kelly has a truly enjoyable column on headline writing based on this question from a reader:
I am fascinated by the headlines in The Post that are plays on words or well-known phrases: "John Heinz, Preferring Inner Light to Limelight" and "Anne Arundel Considers Giving Video Bingo a Spin." Every day these wonderful lines literally fly off the page. Are they written by a specially trained wordsmith? I do some writing and have trouble coming up with even one or two of these rascals. Are there tricks?He interviews the Post's metro copy chief, Marcia Kramer, and the copy chief of the editorial department, Vince Rinehart.
He talks about when headlines should be straight and when they can be playful. Rinehart gives this interesting comparison with the New York Times' heads:
"I think what The Post is best known for is adventurousness in feature headlines," said Vince, who also has worked in Style, Financial and National. (As opposed to the headlines in the New York Times, which employ a more formal style and need to be imagined, said Vince, as being read by Alastair Cooke.)Many examples are given:
- Some Telling William Overtures (over a story on the different leadership styles of two congressmen named Bill)
- Out for a Bit of Fresh Eire (over a St. Patrick's Day column)
- Unindemnified Flying Object (on insurance companies that were canceling policies against alien abduction)
There's more, as well as a discussion of the traits of a good headline writer, the tools they use, and how to know when you've gone too far.
The author gives his own "Fin d'Icicle," on a story about ice fishing, as an example of a head gone bad. And Kramer says, "If I see a 'A Tale of Two Anythings,' I'm going to puke."
Read the full thing here.