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I'm in paradise when I witness art of headline writing at its best

By Paul Connolly

Published 05/08/2016

Back recharged after a break in Athens and the Cyclades Islands in the heart of the Aegean Sea.

Ominously, perhaps, I bought just one print newspaper in 10 days, the Daily Mail - mainly because the only alternative, the Financial Times, cost almost as much as a decent breakfast for two.

And also, of course, because you can get free news online (even if you have to deploy a few tricks to evade certain newspaper paywalls).

On one of the islands we visited, Mykonos, there was a funny incident that reminded me of a great Belfast Telegraph headline.

We were on a local bus bound for a sunny beach when a flip-flop-shod American climbed on. "Is this the bus to Super Paradise beach?" he asked.

"That Paradise Beach bus over there," said the driver, gesticulating. "That other bus is for Super Paradise Beach."

I chimed in: "And the bus over there is for Super Duper Paradise Beach."

"What beach is this bus for?" asked the American. "Paradise Lost," I said, mournfully. Paradise Beach v Super Paradise Beach. Yes, Mykonos really is becoming the Greek Ibiza.

As I mused on this, my mind drifted back to one of my favourite headlines in the Belfast Telegraph.

It was above a feature about one hardline unionist taking on another in the late-1990s. 'Super Prod versus Super Duper Prod', it proclaimed, summing up the contest with brilliant irony (I may stand corrected, but the headline writer was, I believe, the late, great Cyril Thackway).

I chuckled as I remembered it and the thought encouraged some musings about the art of great headline writing on that bumpy journey to Paradise Lost.

There is a myriad of rules to this essential skill and they range from the complex to the simple, for example putting the subject of the story actively into the headline.

'President Reagan shot by gunman' is better than 'Gunman shoots President Reagan'.

One key skill is to sum up the story in around six or seven words in as dramatic a way as possible, but without exaggeration.

Somewhat belatedly, in my view, the dangers of exaggerated headlines have now been recognised by the Press watchdog Ipso, which has inserted wording to this effect into Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Concrete words are better than abstract ones: 'fog' beats 'bad weather' any day, and wasted words are a real enemy.

Why say 'best ever' when 'best' will do? Duplication of words is generally a no-no, being wasteful as well as irritating to the eye.

Web headline writing is an entirely different skill, by the way, as online headlines need to be optimised for search engines.

Rules, of course, are made to be broken, but only by those who know what they are doing.

Take, for example, 'Humphrey Who?', the News Letter's reaction to the 1979 appointment of Humphrey Atkins as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (this was a time when it actually mattered who was Secretary of State for NI). It simultaneously caught the zeitgeist and caused great mirth.

'Super Prod versus Super Duper Prod' worked precisely, too, because it broke so many rules.

So did its author, but that's another story.

Belfast Telegraph

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