Monday, September 15, 2003

Cliché Watch

In the great headline debate, played out with passion on ACES and Testy Copy Editors message boards, I tend to side with the curmudgeons. It’s true!

I believe that witless, vapid wordplay is far too easy an option in headline-writing, and we allow it far too often. Cliché is a crutch we've come to believe is an extra leg.

However. (This is the point at which some grit their teeth.)

I don’t think it’s viable to ban this kind of headline. Ban anything, and you’ll soon see myriad ways it could be used. See my earlier post, in which I defended headlines that are somewhat obvious, but fitting.

An excerpt:

“We should avoid cliché. I agree. But the terms are ultimately part of our language, part of the day-to-day discourse of millions of people. When push comes to shove, then, we shouldn't act like robots.”

“Acting like robots,” meaning that we automatically toss a headline because it seems a trifle threadbare or likely to be used by someone else. My example at the time was “Thanks for the memory/memories” on the Bob Hope obit.

Likewise, many papers used “Fade to black” as the headline on Johnny Cash’s obituary. Not incredible, but it works. (I don’t think it works as well as “Thanks for the memory.” That phrase isn’t wordplay -- just a song title that serves a couple of contexts. “Fade to black” is more confused.)

We could argue about these individual examples forever. But we’re ill-served by turning our backs on any form of expression. When a guideline calcifies into an edict, we lose a bit of our pure and shining souls.

Or something.