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Adding poetic resonance to headlines

March 30, 2016 By Katie Antonsson Conferences

Chris Wienandt, business copy chief of the Dallas Morning News, illuminated the connection between good headline writing and good poetry, and how the right words can make all the difference.

Headlines essentially have to tell the story in four to six words.

“Think of writers as the prose people, and the headline writers as the poetry people,” Wienandt said in his Thursday ACES session, “Poetry in Headlines.”

Essentially, headline writers have to distill down the entire contents of the article into a concentrated and engaging bite of the story.

To begin, a brief discussion of poetry itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge offered that “Poetry the best words in the best order.” So, too, with headlines. Even if the meaning of the words in poetry is obscured, as in Wienandt’s brilliant execution of the Canterbury Tales in Old English, the sound of the words has enough power to pull the reader in.

“The very sound of somebody’s words,” Wienandt said, “can steer you in a certain psychological direction.” And even though most headlines aren’t read aloud, the strongest headlines can resonate in the reader’s mind as if they were read aloud.

Date with density: dead-weight dialogue clogs noirish novel was Wienandt’s prime example of this resonance. “You actually hear the words in your head,” he said, referring to the crispness of the “d” words and smoothness of “noirish novel.”

Other favorite headlines included Sosa belts 2, but Cubs fall (“This is like a Shakespearean tragedy, almost,” Wienandt said); Chase ends with 2 jailed in hotel heists; Long lines, tight flights for holiday; and First family put family first for bringing a poetic palindrome to the table.

“Great headlines convey emotion as well as meaning,” Wienandt said.

But technique can backfire; don’t overdo it and make sure the meaning is clear.

“You can have the spiffiest headline in the world and if it’s not correct, it’s the worst headline in the world. Accuracy trumps everything.” Misleading mistakes confuse the reader and ultimately weaken the effect of the headline. So too does awkward grammar: End of the road for LA bridge seen in countless films takes a minute to fully understand — what is seen in countless films? The road? The bridge?

“If you have to read a headline three or four times to figure out what it says, write a different headline,” was Wienandt’s ultimate advice.

Wienandt did offer some general tips for headline writing and how to make your words snap with poetry:

“One of the great things about thinking poetically is it gives you the liberty to use these picturesque allusions.” But, as warned with technique, don’t overwork it.

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