Headline writing

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Continuing my sometimes-series on what it was like to write Reboot (our forthcoming book . . . hopefully soon to be forthcoming, dear God, please soon) I’ve been highlighting some of the key writing lessons I’ve learned.

One of those was from an excellent high school journalism teacher: Bob Rentfro (affectionately called “BR” by generations of Pleasanton students). By some amazing coincidence, my little rural high school was full of excellent writing teachers (Sharon Ellis, Bill Coleman, Denise Brown, and Linda Novak). I’m not sure how we acquired such talent. But the one I spent the most time working with (because I worked for a couple years on the high school newspaper), and the one who was the hardest editor was BR.

One of the key skills he taught is a now dead art: a specific kind of newspaper headline writing. Back in the days before computers allowed us to easily resize fonts (yes, I am that old), we wrote headlines by counting out the letters to make sure they would fit in the columns of a newspaper. Every letter had a point value. An “E” was one point. A “W” was a bit wider, so it got 1 1/2 points. A lower case “i” was small and it got only a half point.

So you played a little game. How could you capture the essence of the story in a headline with say 39 points? In fact, we had state wide competitions to do just that. (On a complete tangent, BR was also the kind of teacher that went out of his way for his students. My senior year, I had not made it to the State level in headline writing, but he ran me over to the competition building in Austin just in case someone else dropped out or couldn’t make it, in the hopes that they would let me in as an alternate. They didn’t, but BR’s determination stuck with me.)

The key writing skill wasn’t the point counting, the key skill was learning to express the critical elements of a story with clarity (and perhaps a bit of finesse) in a very short space. Clarity and brevity. Two ideals I still struggle with, but two ideals that have helped me substantially in business writing.

It is a skill that not only helps in writing chapter headlines and section breaks, but also comes in very handy in writing “headlines” for presentations. I’d suggest experimenting with it. Next time you have a presentation to write, make it a game. Give yourself 7 words to capture the essence of your slide and make every word really count. You might be surprised at how punchy your writing becomes.

Thanks BR!

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