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Monday, November 7, 2011

Titles vs. Headlines

In my news editing class we have been learning about headline writing. We've talked a little bit about the difference between headlines and titles, which is what I will be addressing here. For now, I'm going to ignore the technical aspect of headline writing (a.k.a. counting units and dealing with font size) and focus on the difference between headlines and titles, when to use which one, and what makes a good headline or title. 

If you have seen previous blog posts or have looked at my online portfolio at all, you will see that headline and title writing is not my forte. However, this is the paradox: as a journalist and writer, I have a pretty good idea of what makes headlines and titles work, but I am terrible at making them work for myself. For example, a headline of one of my articles in Marist's school newspaper read: "New text alert system implemented." This headline is weak and in passive voice. As my news editing class discussed today, it should have been something like: "Marist implements new text alert system" or "Marist begins using text alert system."

So why is this example a headline and not a title? Headlines are typically used in news publications, and have at least a subject ("Marist") and a verb ("implements"), and sometimes a direct object ("system"). As my news editing professor says, a headline is a "skeleton of a sentence." Headline writers--usually copy editors--tend to lean towards conciseness, but sometimes have the creative freedom to give it a little juice. Puns, play on words, and other flourishes will grab a reader more and make headline writing more fun. The headlines about Congressman Anthony Weiner are good examples of creative headline writing: "Weiner's Rise and Fall," "Weiner: I'll Stick it Out," "Weiner Pulls Out" (all from the New York Post).

Titles, I think, are different from headlines, although many use the terms interchangeably. What makes titles different from headlines is that titles can either go beyond being a "skeleton of a sentence" or will look nothing like a headline at all. Titles allow the same amount of (if not more) creativity, but can be much more vague, flowery, descriptive, etc. Think book titles. Some book titles are only one or two words, or are extremely long but even less clear. For example: "Sweetly," by Jackson Pearce, versus "The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman," by Angela Carter. You probably wouldn't know what either of these books are about unless you read the jacket flaps or reviews. A headline gives you the main idea flat out.

If I were to title the text alert article previous mentioned, I could write anything from "Campus Safety" to "The Best Way to Reach Students is to Text Them." Some publications may choose to use a style that allows more title-like headlines, but at Marist's school newspaper, such a soft headline probably wouldn't fly in the news section. 

When it comes down to it, each publication uses its own style, whether they use headlines like the New York Times or titles like The New Yorker. If you're wondering which you should use for your personal writing, I say just be consistent. If your blog, for example, is mostly newsy, I would lean towards choosing headlines with a consistent up-style (Every First Letter is Capitalized Besides Small Words) or down-style (Only the first letter besides proper nouns are capitalized). If your blog is a mix of news, opinion, personal entries, and other various topics/genres, you could probably use either a headline or a title where appropriate. If your blog is dominated by creative writing or personal sentiments, go with titles. 

So there is the difference between headlines and titles, in my humble opinion. 

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