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/.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

RAWSEX

Made you look.

When I first worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, the newspaper used the Hendrix publishing system, on which the slug, or working title, of a story was limited to six letters. Rawsex was a popular slug, and dropping a story with that slug on the copy desk was like dropping a calf into a stream full of piranha.

About ninety percent of the time, RAWSEX would be about ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or some equally gripping topic, and about ten percent of the time it would be about sex, but it always got picked up fast, which was the city desk’s intention.

I mention this in connection with yesterday’s post, “You call that a great headline?”

I wrote the post to take exception with Howard Owens’s tweet about a three-year-old headline, “Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo," as being a great one that any copy editor would envy.

Mr. Owens subsequently took exception to my exception, commenting (and you’ll want to be sure to look at the comments, which came in a burst after Romenesko linked to the post):

I think the fact that the headline has gotten so much attention speaks for itself.

The headline did its job -- got attention to the story.

End of story.

Great headline. One of the best ever.


By that standard, one, by the way, echoed by other commenters, ‘RAWSEX” would be an even greater one. Maybe add an exclamation point.

When he was in charge of the copy editors at the Free Press in Detroit, Alex Cruden conducted a series of headline workshops at American Copy Editor Society conferences, the American Press Institute, and other venues, in which he empaneled civilians — actual readers — to comment on a variety of headlines while muzzled copy editors looked on.

The results were startling to many of the copy editors. Even veteran readers of newspapers did not always pick up on all the headline conventions. And one thing came up repeatedly, in panel after panel across the country: Readers were much less impressed with clever headlines and wordplay than the editors who wrote them. What the readers wanted was clarity.

Not to mention that many clever headlines in newspapers are hardly more than obvious puns, suggesting that copy editors as a group share one of the characteristics that Samuel Johnson found in Shakespeare: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

It remains only to make a couple of points about the alternative headline I mentioned yesterday, my old friend Paul Clark’s “Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose.”

If memory serves, I was the slot editor who approved it for Page One, and I did — pace, commenters — not to allude to Janis Joplin. Without going into the philosophical underpinning of “Me and Bobby McGee,” I thought the headline suggested that the signature line of the song had a parallel to this eagle that had twice been injured.

I’m afraid that nearly all of you who commented on it missed a salient point. Over or the past several years, when I have used this headline in my editing class at Loyola, I have gotten blank looks from every student. If you caught the allusion, then you are probably a fogy like me who still reads things in print. If you drew a blank, you’re probably under forty. If I were in a position to approve that headline today, I’d probably have to kick it back to the editor, much as I like it. Allusion is slippery.

One last thing, commenting on Twitter, Steve Buttry, a classy guy, wrote, “We disagree, but I call attention to John's argument.” Contrast that with a comment by someone named Ray, who wrote, “It's a good headline. It only took a look at the accompanying picture to know what the story was about. This is just a case of sour grapes on McIntyre's part.”