Zen and the Art of New York Times Headline Writing
There's nothing to it, except when there is.
A question for New York Times headline writers: Are you not yourselves? You're no doubt a witty bunch, and yet house style requires you to resist any temptation toward flavorsome puns or tabloidy provocation in favor of the blandly informative. Your mission is to distill a piece to its essence in a few words without sacrificing nuance, and usually, you are more than up to the task. Once in a while, though, you respond to the challenge not with straight-up-the-middle declaratives but with enigmatic paradox and riddle-me-this contradiction.
Consider: "Bigger Is Better, Except When It's Not"—a 2007 article looking at body size in sports. "Smaller Can Be Better (Except When It's Not)"—a tech piece from 2004. "A Marriage Penalty, Except When It Isn't"—on couples and the tax code, 2003. This is the Times headline as koan, inviting readers to suspend in-the-box thinking and seek enlightenment below the fold. The style presents thesis and antithesis; it embraces binary thinking yet disavows it; it builds dichotomies and collapses them. There are good uses of this technique, except when there aren't, as a sampling from the last three months attests.
Headline: " Honesty Is the Sole Policy, Except When It's Not" (Aug. 2)
The gist: Despite tough official policy, New York City police officers who make false statements go mostly unpunished.
Worth a koan? Definitely—this piece is an epistemological gold mine. (Ancient-Greek tabloid version: NYPD SEZ "THIS STATEMENT IS FALSE.")
Headline: "NBC Is Broadcasting Live, Except When It Isn't" (Aug. 10)
The gist: The network didn't always offer full disclosure about which of its Olympic broadcasts were truly "live."
Worth a koan? Yes. A koan is "the place and the time and the event where truth reveals itself." The article ponders: If the synchronized swimming quarterfinals are tape-delayed, are they still the truth?
Headline: "The English Actress (Except in France)" (Sept. 24)
The gist: Kristin Scott Thomas is typecast as a chilly aristocrat in English-language movies but enjoys a more versatile career in French films.
Worth a koan? Nah. Ms. Scott Thomas isn't a Möbius strip. She's just bilingual.
Headline: "Job Hunting Is, and Isn't, What It Used to Be" (Sept. 26)
The gist: The Internet can help you find a job, but you still have to get out and pound that pavement.
Worth a koan? Oh, yeah! And your CompuServe account is and isn't what it used to be, either!
Headline: "Waiting to Lead (or Not)" (Sept. 27)
The gist: Presidents-elect tend to distance themselves from their lame-duck predecessors in the days between the election and inauguration.
Worth a koan? Not really—the article mulls not a paradox so much as an either-or.
Headline: "Grieving, and Not, in the Condiments Aisle" (Oct. 5)
The gist: The late Paul Newman's face still smiles out from grocery store rows of Newman's Own products.
Worth a koan? No. The article has no grieving or not-grieving, just shopping.
Headline: "Dead Language That's Very Much Alive" (Oct. 6)
The gist: Latin is making a comeback in schools.
Worth a koan? Yes, because sic transit gloria, e.g.
Headline: "Shining a Light on a Movement That Maybe Isn't" (Oct. 26)
The gist: The Guggenheim mounts "theanyspacewhatever," a group show of loosely linked installation artists.
Worth a koan? Whatever.
Illustration by Rober Neubecker.