Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Missing the Headline Writer

If yesterday I went on a rant about editors being "pushed out of the loop" in our brave new world of Internet speed, I realized this morning that headline writers are still in that loop and can be just as confounding to readers as ever. To see this we need look no farther than page A13 of the New York edition of today's New York Times. A little bit later than the other sources, Motoko Rich reported the results of this year's Man Booker Prize with the very model of a first sentence in a newspaper report:

Hilary Mantel won the 41st annual Man Booker Prize on Tuesday night for “Wolf Hall,” a historical novel about Henry VIII’s court centered on the king’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell.

Her headline writer decided that details about the subject matter of the book were too messy for a headline. Here is how the story was introduced:

Novel About Henry VIII Wins Booker Prize

This working practice of stripping away words that you (or your presumptive readers) do not understand reminds me of my first encounter with it in elementary school. It was a time when we were all obsessed with being able to spell "antidisestablishmentarianism" as a display of skill. Needless to say, none of us had much idea of what the word meant, let alone any contextual details such as the idea of England having an "established church." So one kid decided to simplify it all by declaring that the word meant "Against England!" Maybe he is the one now writing the headlines at the Times!

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