Magazine article The Quill

Is the Answer in the Question?

Magazine article The Quill

Is the Answer in the Question?

Article excerpt

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 how 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-cum-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. …

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