Let’s adopt writing our own headlines as a way of coping
After having made a career in newspapers, I’m surprised — if not disappointed — that I didn’t think of this myself. However, let’s say “better late than never.”
Somewhere in my readings, I found an interview with a man who had lived a long and eventful life, enduring wars, polio, tragedies, and economic setbacks along the way. If I could remember the man’s name or even the source of the interview, I would provide it. But I’ve become frustrated trying to retrace my steps and locate the interview. If I had thought it would become the topic of a column, I would have certainly taken notes.
The core of the man’s story, however, is that he had endured those many difficulties by, in his words, “writing his own headlines.”
It’s quite good advice as many of us face stressful times in the wake of what has happened to our social connections and our economy as a result of COVID-19.
Headlines, of course, are the first thing we read when we see a story in the newspaper or an article on a webpage. Its purpose is to summarize the contents of the story and, hopefully, entice the reader to look deeper into what it says. A headline also helps a reader navigate through a large number of other stories and help that reader decide which stories to read now, which stories to read later, and which stories to skip entirely.
An editor of a newspaper like the Brownwood Bulletin wears several hats, but primary among them is, well, editing. Duh. And writing headlines for stories that appear in the publication is an important part of the process.
When you write your own story, it’s pretty easy to craft that headline. But when it’s another writer’s story, things get tricky. It’s all too easy to latch onto a small part of the story and write a headline that certainly catches the readers’ attention, but unfortunately fails to convey the essence of what happened.
There’s a particular story with a headline that was published earlier this month by a major national newspaper that by all appearances did exactly that, because the message of the headline didn’t exactly convey the facts included in the story. My original plan was to expound upon that misstep this week, but my thoughts about headlines — and my recollection of a story about an elderly gentleman who coped with life’s hurdles by “writing” his own — distracted me. Assuming nothing else distracts me between now and next week, look for that discussion in seven days.
Something that isn’t a surprise to me is the fact that headlines have long been the way I approach writing stories — news stories, anyway. In a news story, the most important facts are supposed to be in the very first paragraph, with other details being filled in as the story progresses. Perhaps you’ve seen me mention the “inverted pyramid” style of writing. You see that done in printed and on broadcast news reports. You don’t see that on the internet, because holding the core piece of information tends to get readers to click more pages or stay with the webpage for more minutes.
But when the writer decides on a headline first, the essence of the story rises to the forefront, and it helps in drafting the first paragraph of the news story. Feature stories are an exception, but I’m discussing news stories right now.
When you report on a grass fire, the reader wants to know what happened, where it happened, and who fought it — perhaps even why it happened. You don’t want to bury those facts in paragraph No. 27.
In a greater sense, there’s considerable wisdom in the man’s philosophy of “writing his own headlines” for life. He’s not letting someone else dictate the summary of what happened to him. By so stating, we indicate that we have taken ownership of events that happen to us.
We could all benefit from adopting that philosophy during these times.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.