Monday, September 25, 2006

In praise of ...

... well, copy editors. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)
I was a copy editor for many years, so I know their value. But they are more than quality control specialists. They also write the headlines and captions. Now, just about anybody may sit at their breakfast table and see a headline and think to themselves, "I could do better than that." And they may well be right - in that instance. But could they write a really good headline - that fits, of course, in the alloted space - and do it now, fast, and when they're done, do another, and another? I doubt it.


  1. Thank you..thank you ever so much for apportioning a shred of dignity to my thankless job. And yes, making the headline sound snazzy and limiting it to 42 characters may not be rocket science, but sure involves a perseverant engagement with the language that's not everyone's cup of tea.

    (I wonder though why it's not considered real work, unlike that of an engineer's or doctor's. Does it have to do with its results not being quantifiable?)

  2. Old ink-stained wretches such as myself remember the medieval days of hot-metal type, which made the job of headline writing even tougher and more exacting. The limitations of metal type were absolute, unbendable, and untweakable, and there was no moving the size of the headline up or down a point or two to make it fit the space alloted. And headline sizes came in only six-point graduations: 24 point, 30 point, 36 point, and so on.
    All of which is arcana useless to the newspaper reader, even more so today than earlier. Which makes me think, after decades of striving to write "clever" or funny headlines within the tight limitations, what was the point of it? I think we were only doing it to impress our co-workers, as general readers were unlikely to "get" the cleverness before having read the story, and would have forgotten it afterward. What they need is an exact indication of what the story is about.
    Then again, I think of "Headless Body in Topless Bar" and realize that on extremely rare occasions cleverness and accuracy can go hand in hand.

  3. Anonymous12:46 PM

    We call them subeditors in the UK but that's what I am too. Started out as one and I'll always be one in my heart. My job description is no longer "subeditor" but it is the part of my job I think I like the best, editing text of one sort or another. That extract of Darwin's I posted was quite sub/copyeditorial, wasn't it?

  4. Anonymous2:06 PM

    Frank is too modest to tell you himself, but when the sequel to _Silence of the Lambs_ came out, he gave our paper's review of it an incredible headline: SECOND HELPING

    Won an award for that one, did Mr. Wilson!

    I've learned that writing headlines is, if not an art exactly, a craft that requires lots of practice. I've also memorized *a lot* of short verbs. Politicians never 'wrangle' if they can 'spar' or 'duel'.

  5. This reminded me of a poetry contest over on FeatherTale which asks writers to not only think up headlines but to put them in a sestina.

    "The Supermarket Tabloid Sestina Challenge - Write a sestina about supermarket tabloid headlines. Submissions will be judged for creativity, originality and humorous value. In fact, stanzas should be downright ridiculous."