I noticed the following story in my Google mail:


And this made me reminisce.

You probably won’t know it unless you ever did paste-up on the staff of a newspaper (my experience being from my high school newspaper), but typically headlines are not written by the same person who wrote the article. This is typically because it’s unknown what size the headline will need to be — it’s often not until the day of layout that the width, height, and specific layout of a story is determined.

So the two things you need to know:

– Those people laying out the stories for the paper also write the headlines.
– Paste-up is typically a several hour tedious process. I never even had to do the worst parts, because I wasn’t an editor, but I helped out a lot. I thought it was fun; most people didn’t share my opinion.

Paste-up is putting together a puzzle, except every piece is looks the same, it’s just a different size. Also, you can kind of cut pieces of the puzzle off. Or split them in half. But doing so sometimes means that other piece you already cut needs to get glued back together and put somewhere else…

Anyway, enough rambling. By the time you start writing headlines you know how much width you have and are given a point size. This means, since printed fonts are not fixed-width, a varying amount of characters that again you have to fiddle with to fit yet not be too short.

(We used a WordPerfect 5.1 macro for this, if you were curious. I’d include a WordPerfect 5.1 screenshot, but it’s completely unnecessary. Close your eyes and imagine a completely blue DOS screen. Now imagine gray fixed-width characters which represent variable-width characters. Or just Google it you lazy jerk).

It’s pretty much the only creative part of the entire paste-up process I got to participate in. As such, I tried hard to write some great headlines.

Let me tell you: there are not many literary devices one can employ in 5-8 words. Allegory? Characterization? Certainly you can’t build an entire climax in there.

The headline writer’s crutch is alliteration. It’s the only thing you can do to make a headline pop.

Thus, you get so many “W”s in a headline.

Personally, though, I think this shows this guy’s a newb… “W” is the widest point-size character; I would have tried to alliterate on “I” or something, to get more words in.

My personal best was an entire headline — 7 or 8 words — with words starting in S. I had to fight my editor (Ericca Pollack, if I recall correctly) and eventually our teacher said it was OK. I need to dig up that Tiger Tales (more alliteration! I told you!) if I still have it. I’m still very proud of it.