Headline writers are like diners at The Old Country Buffet – they go right for the good stuff, and you’d best not stand in their way. There is no pun, no quibble, no stretch or rhyme or reason, no shaken-and-stirred metaphor they won’t resort to in their quest to stop readers dead in their tracks. I know: I’m Bill, and I am a headline writer.

I wasn’t always this way, although the underlying fascination with groaners and shaggy dog stories was there from the start. When I worked as a reporter and later editor at the late Nashville Banner, the copy editors appended most of the headlines to our articles. They sat roughly in an inward facing square near the city desk, and we could hear them murmuring and often cackling amongst themselves as they clarified our prose and debated zinger headlines.
There were many – and many that did not make it into the paper. Such a one was proposed for a wire story about a woman who had murdered her husband and stuffed his carcass under the house. “I’m walking the floor over you!” sang out a merry voice from the copy desk, convulsing the entire newsroom. The one headline I remember as the all-time greatest was about a grisly local murder whose perpetrator tried to cover up with arson: “Headless body found in gutted church.” If “Wayne’s World” had been out then, we would all have salaamed in appreciation.
But since assuming editorship over various titles at Hammock Publishing, I had to get into the headline business. Turns out I have something of a knack for it, and my colleagues sometimes ask me to swot out a headline for them.
[After the jump, read more about the joys of headlining.]

I should note that headline writing for print and headlining for the Web require different approaches because of differences in the reader experience and the medium. Web headlines generally have to be more specific, more topic oriented, to catch the roving eye of search engines.
Headlines in print, however, must stay the hand and eye from idling past an article to the next page.
One of the most frequent approaches is to pun. This Washington Post article about tightrope walkers in Korea redlined nearly every pun-o-meter in the English-speaking world. It also demonstrated another frequently used headline device, the reference to popular culture or to some other (presumably) well-known area such as literature.
Although Americans are no slouches when it comes to headline groaners, my hat’s off to the British tabloids, which must have padded floors to keep editors from hurting themselves when they fall out of their chairs laughing. The Brits are also much more likely to build double and triple entendres into their writing than we rather prim Yanks.

The wordplay may derive from the text, or the graphics used to illustrate the article, or both. A great recent example of riffing off the text is this headline from the Wall Street Journal on the woes of air travel delays: “Canceled Flight? Your Inn Trouble.” Besides punning on “in” with “inn,” the headline plays the increasingly common misspelling of “You’re.” I imagine a round of high-fives burst out, and Rupert Murdoch might even have twitched a lip.
This headline from the redoubtable Sports Illustrated draws from both text and photo, it seems to me. “Are You Ready for some Futbol”? of course plays off soccer match photo – football in the rest of the world – as well as the word in Spanish, since the story is about a Mexican player.
Sports in general seem to be the richest field from which stunning, punning, playful – or rapier-sharp – headlines spring. Rex Hammock and I this earlier this year.
While it takes a careful reading and a free-range sense of poetic license to come up with consistently playful headlines, writing more serious and straightforward headlines isn’t as easy as it may seem. My journalism school profs hammered on us to focus on the most important element, or possibly two elements, when composing a headline.
A century ago, newspapers routinely used headlines with multiple “decks” – separate sections that condensed the article into a series of what we’d think of as headline-news soundbites. Today, editors and especially magazine designers want the shortest possible headlines, powerful statements with the power of one of Bruce Lee’s 1-inch punches. Serious and even straightforward can still indulge a bit of wordplay, but it better be appropriate to the topic.
Example: This headline, “Remains of the Day,” in Texas Monthly, beautifully captures the essence of the somewhat melancholy, ruminative article. Yes, it has a dash of pun to it, but it isn’t meant to be at all funny. The same issue headlines a story on teaching children about sex with this four-word title that speaks to most parents’ emotions as they deal with this thorny question: “Faith, Hope and Chastity.”
As far as I know, there isn’t any organized headline hunting group such as the typo trackers that Jamie Roberts recently described, although there was an old Canadian TV game show called “Headline Hunters,” and morning drive-time radio jocks often play “which isn’t a real tabloid headline” games with their listeners. That’s probably just as well. Headline writing isn’t for amateurs – best leave it to the professional head cases like us.