Monday, June 25, 2007

weekly writing coach: short headlines

Inspired by the panel of reporters who urged an audience of PR practitioners last week to shorten news release headlines to fit their Blackberries, this week's practice involves writing and editing headlines to keep them brief.

Try this exercise: Choose one news story currently on the wires -- say, today's coverage of the Supreme Court decision to reverse campaign law and allow pre-election campaign advertising by major unions and corporations. Check out these variations from, in order, the Washington Post print edition (9 words); the Post online edition (5 words); the New York Times print and online editions (same headline used at 8 words); the Associated Press (6 words); and Reuters (7 words):
5-4 Supreme Court Weakens Curbs on Pre-Election TV Ads
Court Eases Restrictions on Ads
Justices Loosen Ad Restrictions in Campaign Finance Law
Justices Loosen Limits on Campaign Ads
Court Allows Certain Issue Ads Before Elections
Can you create a headline shorter than 5 or 6 words, the record set by the Post and AP? If you're an observer of headline words -- extremely short synonyms handy for fitting a lot in a small space, like "mull" instead of "ponder," "review" or "consider"--you can substitute a few here. In the examples above, "eases" beats "loosen" or "allows," and "court" is shorter than "justices."

Similarly, consider using punctuation as a substitute for extra words. A colon placed after the source name in a headline always suggests what was said, and uses fewer marks than even quotations--often, it allows you to omit a verb for precious space. In this example, you might write "Court: Pre-Election Ads OK" to indicate what the court said.

Next exercise: Take the last three headlines you've written and see how short you can make them without losing the point. Five to six words will fit in an email subject line or Blackberry with ease

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