Why Writers Don’t Write Headlines

Neil Sinhababu looks at a couple of recent examples of writers disavow unduly overheated headlines that were attached to their articles and wonders why writers don’t normally write their own headlines: “Headlines make a huge difference in how readers understand articles, especially if they’re voracious speed-reading bloggers.”

I’d say there are three kinds of reasons for this. One is that in traditional paper-and-ink production of a periodical, especially a newspaper, it’s not particularly feasible for the person who wrote the article to write the headline. If you think of a newspaper headline, well, the headline needs to fit certain kinds of space constraints. But the writer of the article can’t know, at the time he submits his copy, what the space constraints will be. Him turning the piece in is just the beginning of a process of editing and layout that eventually determines headline space. The headline-writing comes at the end of the story, when the reporter needs to be either asleep or drunk in order to start working the next day. Hence, it’s simply tradition that headlines are not written by editors.

Second, there’s virtue in necessity. The actual reason why newspaper articles are written in “inverted pyramid” style is related to the technical process of submitting copy via a telegraph and the expense of communicating back-and-forth between editors and reporters. It means, among other things, that you can always submit “too much” copy and then the editor knows he should just cut however many grafs from the end in order to make the story fit. But this actually turns out to be a way of presenting information that has appeal to some people. And now we have some web outlets basically aping the inverted pyramid style, even though the space constraints that made it necessary in the first place don’t apply. Similarly, once headline-writing became a semi-specialized function, it turned out that specialists could do a better job of headline-writing than could general writers.

Third, there’s a corrupt bargain. As a writer, you want to put together a responsible, defensible article. But you also want lots of people to read your article. An irresponsible, overblown headline can attract readers. But then you look irresponsible! The ideal scenario is for headline-writing to be someone else’s job. That way, they can err on the side of grabbing attention and if people complain you can always disavow it.