SU CARROLL has put a lifetime in newspapers – and the cinema – to good use when it comes to writing copy…

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Gotcha! This one-word headline still resonates 36 years after it appeared on the front page of The Sun. The newspaper’s verdict on the sinking of the Argentine ship, The General Belgrano, at the height of the Falklands War in May 1982 was dramatic, flag-waving and jingoistic. It still had that populist Sun touch, neatly side-stepping the fact that there was great loss of life. But it did what it was supposed to do – caught the reader’s attention “above the fold”. This anachronistic expression denotes the need to persuade you to buy a paper purely from what you glimpse when it is folded on the newsstand and dates from a time when all papers were larger format broadsheets.

Of course, in a modern digital age there is plenty of competition for our attention 24/7 and headlines like “Paddy Pantsdown” and “Freddie Starr ate My Hamster” just don’t cut the mustard anymore. Instead you have to cut through the noise and produce something to make someone stop and pay attention. But even with online writing, we can still learn from the skills of newspaper journalists.

Sum it up

I spent 40 years working on newspapers and have written my fair share of headlines. Some would be the result of ages of deliberating and playing with words before opting (reluctantly) for something which just fits the space and tells the story. But more often than not inspiration smacks you between the eyes very quickly and your heart skips a beat. Like any skill, experience counts and there are some tricks of the trade.

Even if we have left traditional headlines behind, ask yourself what you are writing about. Your own headline summary is the quickest way to tell you how to focus your writing.

Let me entertain you

Tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. And in that order please! Playing around with them is reserved for novelists. Make it lively and interesting. Easier said than done I admit, but ask yourself what you’d tell a friend in the pub about what you’re writing. Keep it factual but don’t let it read like an instruction manual.

It’s in his KISS

In the 1960s the American Navy adopted a phrase which numerous businessmen and politicians have laid claim to since: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Don’t get bogged down with irrelevant detail or use complicated language. You can also be colloquial where it’s relevant without getting too “boys in da hood”. Clarity is important.

Learn by example

Yoda-like, I would happily dispense advice to young journalists desperate for a small piece of wisdom. Resisting the temptation to tell them to choose another career path, one of the things I’d tell them would be to look at what works for them. Read a newspaper (or website) with a critical eye. Does the headline make you want to read the story? Does the intro make you want to carry on reading? Do subsequent paragraphs keep your interest? Does it make sense or are you constantly asking questions?

See what works and what keeps you engaged and you’re halfway to create interesting copy yourself. It isn’t rocket science. Actually, rocket science is very simple. Aerospace engineering is basically all about propulsion.

Recommended viewing

I’m sure policemen, teachers, medical professionals, lawyers or shop workers all watch a movie or TV programme bemoaning how inaccurate the portrayal of their working life is. Journalists are the same. But as an enthusiastic cinemagoer, here are some films that get it right.

Teacher’s Pet (1958). Clark Gable is a hardened city editor, Doris Day is a professor teaching journalism. A misunderstanding brings Gable to her class where he passes himself off as a student. Very funny and lots of detail right.

All The President’s Men (1976) The true story behind the uncovering of the Watergate Scandal just four years earlier which led to the downfall of President Nixon. The filmmakers went to enormous trouble to recreate the offices of The Washington Post even down to the out-of-date phone books and boxes of trash.

The Post (2018) The Washington Post again, this time their campaign to print the secret Pentagon Papers which revealed the likely failure of the war in Vietnam. With Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks – what’s not to like.

Spotlight (2015) Another true story – The Boston Globe’s exposure of abuse in the Catholic Church. Not afraid to shy away from the mind-numbing fact-checking and attention to detail that goes on. No cinematic quick fixes in this newsroom.

Ace in the Hole (1951) Kirk Douglas is a small-town journalist with big ambition. When a mine worker is trapped below ground he sees his chance to make a name for himself. It doesn’t go well…

 

Su Carroll has worked in newspapers, radio and television including as deputy news editor at Westcountry Television and Executive Features Editor of the Western Morning News. She’s even contributed an article to the Starsky and Hutch Fan Club Magazine. But, as she admits, that was back when flares were fashionable.