John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You call that a great headline?

On Twitter, I came across a tweet from @howardowens: “A copy editor could work a lifetime and never get a chance to write such a great headline.” Intrigued, I clicked on the link and found this Washington Post headline:

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

I’m sorry. I can’t endorse this one.

I’ll grant you that it’s cute, and I’m sure it brought a round of chuckles at what remains of the Post’s copy desk. But it’s just arbitrary.

A play on words in a headline, particularly one combined with an allusion, should work both ways. It should give a sense of the content of the story, and the allusion should have some connection with the story. There is no Star Wars angle in the story, so the headline is just standing there, saying, “Look how clever I am.”

I’ll give you an example from the archives of one that works.

Some years back, Bill Clinton visited Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and to commemorate the president’s visit, a bald eagle that had injured a wing and been nursed back to health was released into the wild. They called the eagle “Freedom.” Unfortunately, Freedom promptly got into a scrap with a couple of ospreys, was injured, and was returned to veterinary care.

The irrepressible Paul Clark, then working on The Sun’s copy desk, wrote the headline:

Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose

Watch and learn.