Media mistakes 6: Don’t write the headline

I’ve been editing supplements and articles for clients again and one of the corporate contributors has been late.

This often happens so it’s just as well I lied through my teeth about the real deadline (experienced editors will know this is essential when dealing with non-journalists who have no reason to be accustomed to deadlines). The writer was a pleasant and professional person – she explained the delay was because she’d written the article but hadn’t put the headline or the subheadings in.

Another contact was writing a piece for me and made the headline into a question. The text started “That’s something I’m often asked, and the answer is…”

Uh-uh. That’s not how it works.

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Think about a magazine or newspaper for a minute. If you have one handy, pick it up and have a look at the headlines. It may not be obvious but they will be set out according to a particular font and a particular size depending on where they are in the paper. The headlines will also be set to a strict formula – in Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit, you hopefully won’t notice but when I point it out you’ll see that all of the headlines are two decks (that’s journalist jargon for two lines), the straplines are three lines each.

It gives the thing a uniform feel. Now look at the sub-headings. Ask yourself whether they’re there to break up the text visually or there because of the sense of it. Ideally it should be both but – and it’s a big but – ask yourself whether there is a subhead at any point at the beginning of a column or at the end of one. If the subs and production people are doing their job, there won’t be. It looks messy.

So, back to my contributors. There was actually no point in putting the heading or subheading in – if it doesn’t fit exactly it’s going to be thrown out. Likewise, the subheads: unless you can predict exactly where a particular piece of text is going to fall in a column, we’re going to move them or rewrite them for neatness’ sake. And of course the same goes for tying a headline in too closely with the text.

It’s always useful to have a change of tone or subject emphasised, or a suggestion for a subject of a headline. I’d suggest, though, that you don’t bust a gut over it if you’re contributing an article; it’s quite likely to be used as a guideline and then jettisoned in favour of something that will showcase your article better.

Do you need help with writing for publication? I can help – call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

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