Beware of zombies and 6 other headline tips for 2012

OCAL, via

Let’s start the new year with some suggestions for better headlines. I’ve included examples because I know how you love examples.

1. Beware of zombies

Packing too much into a headline can easily create wording that will haunt you later.

In this case, the headline writer meant that Pearl Harbor survivors visited their former ships after the recent death of a former shipmate. Instead of saying that, though, the headline created images of zombies. Or ghosts. Or other otherworldly creatures best left to Doctor Who.

My advice: To avoid zombies, don’t let kickers get in the way of headlines. In this case, the key words were “Pearl Harbor,” so putting that in the kicker forced the headline writer into an unnatural construction.

2. Watch that juxtaposition

It’s always dangerous to put two unrelated teasers next to each other like this. Doing so gives the impression of relatedness, whether intended or not.

My advice: Don’t let design impede meaning. Telling readers about other stories is good, but not when adjacent headlines create unintended meaning. In news jargon, a teaser headline is sometimes called a reefer. When something like this happens, the word is apt.

3. Avoid verbs that aren’t verbs

I promised to write more about this ad headline when I posted it after Thanksgiving. It’s from a Best Buy circular.

Advertising often has its own language, but that language still needs to caress the ear rather than smash into it like a greasy frying pan. I assume that gift as a verb has gained momentum from regift, which has all the euphony of a frothing zombie. (For more on zombies, see No. 1.)

My advice: When you write, use real words.

4. Avoid mixed metaphors

The companion to this headline would be this:

No, Winston Smith, you can’t escape Santa Claus on Facebook

My advice: Don’t Twitter with Orwell.

5. Try not to baffle your readers

“Un-” means “not,” of course, except with words like underwear. So if the unconfirmed is confirmed, is it still not confirmed? And if a threat is both confirmed and unconfirmed, does that increase or decrease its credibility? And if an unconfirmed threat is confirmed, is it really a threat? Or is it just underwear?

My advice: Try not to baffle your readers, unless you really want to.

6. Remember that spell-check won’t catch homophones

If you want a refresher on peak and pique, see my post on pesky homophones. If you want to avoid embarrassment in headlines, rely less on spell-check and more on your eye, your brain and your dictionary.

My advice: Look up words even when you think you know what they mean.

7. Beware of double-entendre

Like zombies (see No. 1), double-entendre will force you to sleep with one eye (or maybe both eyes) open. It will also baffle your readers (see No. 5).

So if you want to tell people how to save money, tell them how to save money. If you want to tell them how to get on a bike, tell them how to get on a bike. But don’t make them guess what you are trying to tell them.

My advice: Read all headlines with a dirty mind, a skeptical eye and a juvenile sense of humor. And have a happy New Year.

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