How to write a good headline: Puns, clichés, failures, hyperbole, catchy language.

The Headlines We Wanted to Run but Just Couldn’t

The Headlines We Wanted to Run but Just Couldn’t

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May 18 2015 3:03 PM
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Inside Slate Editors’ Heds

Our favorite failed headlines.

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Illustration by Holly Allen

Headline writing is the darkest of arts—it’s just so easy to do wrong. The best headlines, after all, are a delicate balance of elements expertly combined: clever but not too clever, in-your-face but not too BuzzFeed-y, informative but not too wordy, catchy but not in a way you’ve heard millions of times before. And they’re sometimes hyperbolic: “This Story Will Change Your Life.” Slate editors never stop hunting for that unforgettable headline—that Platonic ideal of titular phrases, that elusive white whale, just out of reach.

Sometimes we’ve gotten close. Consider what many refer to as our finest headline of all time, which crowned an article about whether it was worse for children to view pornography or graphic violence “Bush v. Gore.” And then there are our more everyday masterpieces, like the recent “Killing Time”(on whether Louisiana could execute a man who claimed to be intellectually disabled) or “Choose Your Old Adventure”(on the return of classic video games via Kickstarter.) Sometimes the story is so good, or so unbelievable, we can’t possibly follow it with anything that would enhance it, so we just say, “Whoa.”

How do we get those puntastic gems? We’re just flying by the seat of our pants like everyone, surviving on our blood and sweat and wits. But Slate headline writing is often a team effort. It takes hours to brainstorm, spitball, and craft the most perfect phrase. It is the hive mind at its finest, working to come up with those five-word crowd pleasers you can’t not read.

It’s a process of trial and error. And over the years, we’ve found plenty of amazing wonders that end up on the copy room floor—too-tired puns, jokes too clever for their own good, or allusions that just soar right over your head. Some we’re ashamed of; others we are secretly proud of. Senior editor Jon Fischer even has a Tumblr devoted to the heds that didn’t quite make it.

So here, in own words, are our favorite failures – our cringe-worthy and puntastic masterpieces, the tragic rejects of our headline-making factory:

Never one to miss a good keyboard pun, I nearly used the headline “QWERTY Dancing” for Seth Stevenson’s review of the Blackberry Classic, since if there’s a reason to buy one, it’s because you like its noisy, tactile keyboard. Since “QWERTY Dancing” doesn’t quite qualify as transcendent wordplay, I went with a more straightforward headline. “QWERTY Dancing,” like all of my discard headline puns (plus the submissions I occasionally get!), ended up here. —Jonathan Fischer, senior editor and proprietor of Heds Will Roll

I wanted to call this piece on male enhancement products “Dick in a Box,” but that famous prude David Plotz flagged it. —Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor

Here’s a recent groaner I rejected for this post: “The New Muppet Show Will Be ‘More Adult.’ Will It Be Less ‘Wocka Wocka’ and More ‘Bow Chicka Wow’?” —Forrest Wickman, senior editor

I always wanted to do “You’re Doing It Wrong: How to sneak Video Cameras Into SCOTUS” —Dahlia Lithwick, Supreme Court reporter

A discarded option for this post, a pretty meaty piece tracing the evolution of Louie C.K.’s relationship to love from the beginning of the show: “Maybe She’s Born With It, Maybe It’s MaybeLouie—Laura Bennett, senior editor

An abandoned headline for our article on Mumford and Sons’ new look and new sound: “The Young and the Vest-Less.” (With the subheadline “Mumford and Sons’ new album finds them ditching their banjos and old duds for, well, what exactly?”) —Forrest Wickman

Recently we batted around ideas for a name for a package of stories about late-night television:

From Desk Till Dawn
Desk Job/Desk Jockeys
After Hours/After Prime Time
The State of Late
The Slate Slate Show
u awake?
The Late Greats
Latest and Greatest
Here All Night
The Late Shift
Friday Night Lates
Staying Up Slate
Night Moves
Up All Night
What Gets Us Through the Night
The State of Late (The Next Morning)
Host Stories: Tales From the Late-Night Desk

After all those not-quite-right ideas, we ended up going with “Last Laugh: The End of an Era in Late-Night TV.” It’s a great series of stories and we hope you enjoy it.

These are some of the headlines that were discarded, mercifully, in the making of this story:

Headlines: You’re Doing it Wrong
Headlines: How to Do Them Right
How Many Kittens Died in the Making of This Headline? (Seven.)
Headlines Suck, but Not for the Reasons That You Think