Title Challenges

If there's one typical, recurring source of friction between e-editors and their employers and writers, it's the choice of titles and headlines. We've all come under pressure to let through titles that reflect, only too self-indulgently, the writer's personal tastes or literary affectations.

But there are few reports, press releases or brochures that will really benefit from being labelled "To kill a mocking-bird", "Anarchy in the UK" or "Surbiton: sense and sensibility in suburbia".

All headlines are titles. But not all titles are headlines. Most, in fact, are labels.

Going right back to basics, the title or headline you are setting in bold or enlarged type at the top of an item is there to do some fundamental tasks.

It marks the start of a piece of writing. It gives some idea, directly or elliptically, of the content of the text below it.

It aims to attract, deflect or inform the reader. (Yes, we know, that's not what people usually say. But saving the reader time by signalling that this is not the piece he or she is looking for is also helpful. And, realistically, a lot of information is absorbed, in business and technical contexts, through readers scanning the headlines of many more stories than they are ever going to read.)

The problem is that films, novels, plays, records, even paintings, can bear all kinds of titles. These titles are just labels, preferably distinctive but otherwise obeying no constraints or disciplines at all. Anything goes — evocative, descriptive, atmospheric, explicit, enigmatic, literary, illiterate ("Two Weeks Notice", "Yes Minister"), factual, nonsensical, or whatever takes the creator's fancy.

But in the practical world of e-editordom, mere labels are seldom what's needed.

When the task is to communicate information, rather than to whip up a bit of froth for the lighter sections of a customer newsletter, for example, you need to think in terms of headlines, not labels.

And despite the amateur's conviction that the art of the headline is the art of contriving the most extravagant pun, you are looking for headlines that will convey meaning.

If space allows, the best guarantee of this is to put together a head containing a verb (infinitives allowed, but the feeble "—ing" form, so beloved of beginners, should be avoided like the plague). Just having a verb will impose a shape and encourage you to say who is doing what to whom.

Make the main verb as vivid and active as possible ("is" is the weakest, "have" is the next, and abstract business clichés like "provide" can invariably be improved upon). The only caveat here is to avoid hysteria — if you're tempted by "rocketed" and "plummeted", you're probably trying too hard.

Then apply the same approach to the other elements of the headline, always choosing the most precise and down-to-earth words you can.

Specific beats general, so "red" is good, but "coloured" is bad. "Storm" beats "weather". "Affects" is horrible, because your reader needs to know whether you mean "kickstarts" or "destroys".

Sometimes headlines, rather than labels, are just not possible — or, if they were, would produce an effect that was far too congested for the situation they would be seen in.

Look at the navigation bar to the left of this piece. Each of these elements has been kept to a limit of around 20 characters, in order to avoid this index of other E-EDITOR pages becoming a clogged and clunky block of text. We could have used our tabloid-honed skills to carve out a neat little headline for each page, but the effect would have been far too rich.

So, in practice, labels were inevitable here. But wherever there is space to switch into headline mode, you should take the opportunity to do it.

There's a lot more theory and technique to discuss in relation to headlines, and we will certainly come back to the subject in the future. For the moment, though, there's one more bad habit you should push back against wherever possible.

Serious people writing for serious audiences have a terrible tendency to believe that implanting a colon somewhere in the headline will lend their work gravitas and give it an academic air.

At its worst, this can land you with two Siamese headlines, joined at the colon and often pulling in different directions. At its most mundane (see "Surbiton", above), it just draws attention to the fact that someone has failed to incorporate one of the main elements of the story into the headline, and glued it on afterwards.

As The Royle Family's Ricky Tomlinson would say, "Gravitas? My goodness, no."

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