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The Copy Shop: To clickbait or not to clickbait? How copy editors write headlines

(Nicole Nobre/Daily Bruin)

By Jun Ma

Oct. 14, 2019 1:18 p.m.

Welcome to the Copy Shop – the platform for members of Daily Bruin Copy to rant about the Oxford comma, discuss sensitivity in mass media and attempt to generally demystify the mind-boggling and all-too-misunderstood world of the copy editor.

This post was updated Oct. 14 at 6:40 p.m.

Making magic happen in 80 characters is hard.

I have been a rimmer for a year – and after many late runs and excruciating moments staring at the character counter, I can say with confidence that writing headlines is a difficult yet rewarding job.

Daily Bruin stories are nuanced, informative and unique, and the headlines we write attempt to capture that in just a line or two. It is a careful art to make a title that summarizes everything but also spotlight the most important aspects of the piece. The rules of writing a headline follow established conventions, but are also broken at appropriate times.

Associated Press Stylebook guides us in everything we do. Headlines, AP says, can make or break a story. Readers turn away when there’s no icing on the cake.

But why would a stylebook emphasize the pertinence of headlines? After all, if a reporter writes a story, doesn’t it make sense for that same person to also be responsible for the succinct synopsis?

In a critique of The New York Times’ decision to reform its copy desk in 2017, the Poynter Institute’s John Russial offers an explanation: Headline writing is simply part of the skill set that copy editors must possess, and it’s not a task that a reporter should be doing.

“(Copy editors) provide a crucial level of review on broader issues such as structure, fairness and libel, and they write crisp, accurate headlines,” Russial wrote.

There are many different tones a headline can take on. We appreciate, for example, the fake-but-witty headlines in The Onion as well as the straight-from-template but hyperoptimized clickbaits at BuzzFeed. At the Daily Bruin, we strive to make our headlines informative and truthful, but also fun.

However, there is a bit of nuance at play here. Every type of story gets a certain type of headline.

For example, News headlines tend to be straightforward and concise. The most important elements are who was involved and what happened. As a college news publication, we mostly report news that relates to this community and takes place here on campus, or on a regional or a national level. We don’t find it necessary to spell out the name of Los Angeles in headlines, for example, because we think our readers understand that “LA” here does not likely mean Louisiana.

Because News events are complicated with many stakeholders and details, there’s less room in the character limit to be fancy. Occasionally, we manage to do that: “Veggie Grill to sprout on campus, offers exclusively plant-based menu” is a fun one. This headline and two others helped us win Best Headline Portfolio for a school of more than 10,000 students from the California College Media Association in March.

Opinion headlines can be trickier. It’s very important that headlines written for Opinion pieces sound opinionated and have the same tone as the author’s writing. Words like “should” and “must” are given to more argumentative articles, depending on the issue’s urgency and the author’s attitude.

For more analytical and less angled pieces, their headlines are calmer and less commanding. Editorials are a good example. I wrote the headline “The Agora is an overwhelming mirage with an underwhelming delivery” a while back, because I felt this went well with the editorial board’s intention to demonstrate how the housing project may not live up to its advocates’ high hopes.

Arts & Entertainment stories are like News and Opinion, but focus on a more specific area of interest. The A&E stories usually get more lighthearted treatment in terms of headlines than News. “Summer class on Cardi B explores re-okurrr-ing issues of respectability politics” is a great headline that my friend and talented copy editor crafted. It is accurate, informative and funny – not to mention memorable.

A&E reviews are written more like mild Opinion headlines except when they are not. “Twenty One Pilots’ ‘Trench’ falls flat, fails to produce a variety of sounds” drew a lot of attention from fans who furnished fanatic comments in the discussion section with its alliterative title, and this is just one example of the more critical headlines.

Sports headlines might be more direct than News. If there is a key statistic, someone won a game or a medal was given, that’s the headline. More general Sports stories usually get an overview of past performances or an outlook of upcoming events in the headlines so that it’s clear at a glance.

However, headlines for Sports columns can get out of the single-game focus to look at trends and issues around collegiate sports, as our columnists who relentlessly follow the teams naturally notice other things that happen off the field. They write in columns like “Un-Connon Opinions” and “Tay’s Takedown,” which give voice to important observations separate from the numbers.

By now it shouldn’t be hard to understand why writers don’t write headlines themselves. Copy editors are the last ones to look over the story, and we work our magic to polish the finished product and show readers the big picture.

The headline is the cherry on top, the seal of approval from Copy that the story is ready to go out to the world.

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Jun Ma
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