BuzzFeed. Upworthy. The Sun. These are all publications with a propensity for headlines that are annoying (“37 ways to know…”), cynical (“You’ll never believe…”), and/or tasteless (this). If you’re publishing journalism on the web, and you want to figure out how to write headlines that will attract attention and not piss people off, the answer is basically to do the exact opposite of everything that those three regrettable behemoths have done over the course of their respective eight, two, and forty-year-long histories.
But, there’s another negative role model we might look into—one that predates even the storied, sordid scareheads of the Sun. We can learn one of the most important lessons about bad headline writing from the lord of loquaciousness, the count of circumlocution, the viscount of verbosity himself: James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.
Lurking between the covers of Joyce’s famously incomprehensible Ulysses is a critique of the institution of journalism. Well, really it’s less of a critique than a joke at journalists’ expense.
It happens in a chapter that Joyce titled “Aeolus,” after the Greek wind god. The chapter is set in the newsroom of the Freeman’s Journal, circa 1904. Our protagonist, the ad man Leopold Bloom, has stopped by the Journal‘s offices to place an advertisement. While he’s there, the reader gets an inside look at his thoughts. Like everything else in the book, they’re pretty well impossible to parse, riddled as they are with Joyce’s tendency to replace verbs with onomatopoeia. (Must remember to ka-thunk my microphone on my way offstage.)
So, let’s gather some evidence and try to make sense of at least a bit of it. Fact #1: The office’s doors are broken. In keeping with the “wind” theme, they blow open and closed uncontrollably throughout the chapter. Fact #2: The word “windbag” is used as an insult several times throughout the chapter. Conclusion: The newsroom is represented as a giant lung, with air flowing in and out through a broken pair of doors. This is backed up by Joyce’s notes. This comparison should be quite gratifying to journalists: the gist of it is that a citizenry cannot survive without its media any more than a human can survive without its lungs. But, given the ease with which Joyce connotes the human lung with the disparaging label “windbag,” maybe we shouldn’t be so flattered. *Lit nerd extravaganza over.*
Now, back to headlines. One conclusion we might draw about Joyce’s attitude towards newspapers is that he simply did not like headlines. Given the kind of author that Joyce was, you can understand why. There’s probably never been another writer who has chosen his words with such purpose. Every letter of Ulysses contributes to the book’s many many many different meanings. Newspaper headlines don’t contribute meaning to a news story. They just grab your attention. They are completely utilitarian, and if there’s one thing that James Joyce doesn’t stand for, it’s utilitarian text.
The way that he expresses his presumable hatred for headlines is hilarious. The “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses is arbitrarily sectioned off by inane, nonsensical headlines that add absolutely nothing to the unfolding narrative. Here are a few of my favourite examples, which are no less funny for being taken out of context:
“THOSE SLIGHTLY RAMBUNCTIOUS FEMALES”
“SOPHIST WALLOPS HAUGHTY HELEN SQUARE ON PROBOSCIS. SPARTANS GNASH MOLARS. ITHACANS VOW PEN IS CHAMP.”
My very favourite one of all makes up the title of this post. This brings us, finally, to our lesson in headline writing: headlines must make sense. The Canadian Press Stylebook has this to say: “A good headline—specific, lively, and concise—should tell readers everything they need to know about the story, but still make them want to know more.” Perhaps if early twentieth-century Dublin newspaper editors had taken this into account, Joyce wouldn’t have lambasted them quite so hard.
So, to sum up: don’t write headlines like BuzzFeed. Don’t write headlines like Upworthy. Don’t write headlines like the Sun. And dear lord, don’t write headlines like James Joyce. Ka-thunk. ♦