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Is the answer in the question?

Headlines in the form of questions can draw readers into stories.

Part two of two parts

Last month's column focused on the ideal of completeness in writing headlines and how today's instant multimedia have radically changed both the function and the content of successful headlines. This column will discuss further the value of the question in headlines.

The headlines that best invite readers into the story are "open-end" headlines that focus on questions rather than answers -- thereby creating curiosity, interest and mystery. Headlines that shut off reader interest are usually "dead-end" headlines that conform to the conventional criterion of completeness and fully reveal the story's conclusions. Conversely, open-end headlines deal with the hew or the why or the what now? They focus on the present or future, while dead-end headlines focus on the past. Open-end heads also get the readers involved through mystery, paradox and surprise, or by offering a look inside or behind the scenes.

A headline with a question mark is inherently more open and engaging than a statement headline -- the former asks; the latter tells. Consider The Wall Street Journal's "Is the Awful Behavior of Some Bad Bosses Rooted in Their Past?" That head is more interesting than "Some bosses' bad behavior rooted in past, says study." The question sets us thinking; the statement seems so simplistic it invites a duh.

A question also is safer than a statement when the statement may editorialize. "Are These X-rays Too Revealing?" asks The Wall Street Journal over a story dealing with the BodySearch airport screening device. The accompanying photo of a model reveals full details not only of the subject's weapons, but of his nude body. "These X-rays Are Too Revealing!" is hardly objective, while the question allows readers to make the judgment. Other such heads:

AT&T's High Wireless Act Can it Deliver the Web and a Dial Tone?

Can Bob Pittman Make It All Click?

How Would Bush Fare With Foreign Policy? Check out Mexico.

Headlines that are teasingly and pleasingly humorous by virtue of a question mark can become ridiculous without that question mark. "God likes toaster pastries?" asks USA Today regarding the television series "God, the Devil and Bob?" Imagine that headline rendered:

"God likes toaster pastries?

The Wall Street Journal placed this amusing headline on a profile of a man promoting a pastry called paczki (pronounced "punchkey"): "Who Put the Paunch in Paczki and Droves in Shrove Tuesday?" The question and word play together make that headline special -- and especially inviting. The Journal excels at question-aim-word-play heads:

A Hard Question Should Church Pews Be a Comfort Zone? Tradition: Unpadded Wood; But Some Devoutly Desire A Softer Seat of Worship.

Y2 Many Lobsters? Millennium Revelers Have Turned Tail Hoarders Who Bet on a Run On the Costly Crustaceans Now Face Being Pinched

Here's the head on a Journal story about the Lomo Kompakt Automat, a Soviet-era camera whose images are, in the words of writer Taylor Holliday: "brilliant and bleary, intense and unreliable, enigmatic and mesmerizing all at the same time -- kind of like the Soviet era itself, minus the tyranny."

How Lomo Can You Go?

The New York Times served up a question-cum-word-play-cum-answer head on a story about television's popular "Who wants to be a millionaire?"

Who Wants to Be Retro? Multimillions

And The Wall Street Journal's treatment of the sudden rash of new quiz shows?

An Overdose of Quizzes? No Question

The Journal also used a question to make the most of a headline on a story reviewing reactions to the AOL-Time Warner merger: "This Changes Everything! Or Does It?"

Although questions quickly and easily provoke reader interest and curiosity, we can't litter headline space with question marks, valuable as they are. Heads that focus on the how or the why or the what now accomplish the same end -- often without asking a direct question. The Wall Street Journal consistently offers great how and why headlines:

How a Single Sentence by IRS Paved the Way to Cash-Balance Plans

How Market Slumps Alter Psychology

How Steve Case Morphed Into a Media Mogul

How a Need for Speed Turned Guadalajara Into a High-Tech Hub

How a Ballpark Tip Evolved Into a Burden for One of the Big Five

How Did Stores Do This Season? Two Syllables: Ka-Ching!

How the GOP Faithful Forged a Golden Chain Behind Bush Campaign

Why a Firefighter Needs a Garden Hose to Do His Thing

What now headlines are questions without question marks -- they point to the future rather than to the past and emphasize the unknown rather than the known:

The American Century: Is It Going or Coming? (WSJ)

As Gasoline Prices Rise, the Cost of New Cars and Trucks May Fall (NYT)

Toys 'R' Us Hires F.A.O. Chief Hoping to Coax Back Customers (NYT)

He Engineered a Mob Hit, and Now It's Time to Pay Up

Entering a 2nd season, 'The Sopranos' Has a Hard Act to Follow (NYT)

Headline writers could take a crash course in what catches the reader's eye by studying the covers of popular magazines. Here are lines from a handful of recent Time covers:

How to Save the Earth

Testosterone: Is the Edge worth It?

How to Improve your Memory

The Hottest Jobs of the Future

Inside a Hacker School

The Truth About Bankruptcy

The Love Bug: How it Works. How to Protect Yourself Against Viruses

The Future of Technology: Smart Cars, Uppity Robots and Cybersex. Are you ready?

Paula LaRocque is assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Society of Professional Journalists
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:questions in newspaper headlines
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000

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