Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lazy headline writing

It's no secret that the quality of journalism has declined dramatically in the Internet era--largely because of the constant pressure to add fresh content and get "clicks and eyeballs."

However, taking a moment to clarify the most important part of your article--the headline--is always worthwhile. Here is an example of a lazy headline from an Associated Press story as it appears on Yahoo (incidentally, Yahoo probably has the worst content aggregators and story presentations in the business, although I am not sure Yahoo News counts as journalism).

Penn State figures accused of lying head to court

Maybe I am the dummy, because it took me three reads to make sense of what the story was about, although I have been loosely following the PSU case. "Penn State" is the good opening hook, but "figures" is a double-meaning word, made even worse by the fact that one meaning is a verb and another is a noun. "Penn State figures" could mean "Penn State expects." So you have to go to "figures accused" and that throws a hiccup into the reader's understanding.

Then you get the "lying head." Is the head lying on a pillow? "Figures accused of lying head." Huh?

This isn't an egregious offense to written communication and meaning, but it is an example of how unclear word use and inattentive word order serve as roadblocks. No doubt some people breeze right through and translate it instantly into coherency, but in a world of many content choices, wouldn't you want an inviting doorway?

When I was a carpenter, we had a saying, "Measure twice, cut once." Sounds like good advice for writing, too.

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