New York Times headlines that read like Zen koans.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 11 2008 12:53 PM

Zen and the Art of New York Times Headline Writing

There's nothing to it, except when there is.

Illustration by Rober Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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.

Headline: "Doing Things You're Not" (Nov. 9)
The gist: A night out with singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, and a quote from David Letterman on Arthur's band: "I would like to be with those people. I think they're probably doing things I'm not."
Worth a koan? It is and it isn't. Stripped of a subject noun, the headline floats in space, achieving action and not-action, being and not-being.



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 6:39 PM Spoiler Special: Transparent
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?