As we have discussed here before, I spend a less time thinking about how a headline or a photo or anything else can be awesome and a lot more time thinking about how it can go horribly wrong. That level of mild-to-moderate paranoia keeps me out of more than the average amount of trouble when it comes to my writing here and elsewhere.
I’m teaching an editing class this summer, which has me on the lookout for gaffes, stumbles and other snafus that pop up on all manner of platforms. Although horrible spelling and awkward moments make up a great deal of my finds, I have noticed more than a few areas in which the way in which a word can be interpreted or misread can lead to problems within writing.
One of my favorites came from USA Today as the country was crawling out from under the mortgage meltdown:
The questions I had were a) do I get to pick where they shoot me? and b) where do I sign up?
Obviously, in this case, the writer meant “shot” to be a synonym for “chance.” However, “get shot” can also easily be interpreted to mean someone put a bullet in you. (I suppose if you want to get technical, it could also mean a needle full of something or a small glass of hard liquor. “Barkeep! I’ll take a Tequila Sunrise and a shot of “Loan Abatement.”)
A similar problem emerges in this headline:
(Glad they finally got those Gay-Straight Alliance ruffians to stop picking on people in the school…)
Stressing different words in different ways can help you avoid issues like this one as well:
The title in the tweet showcases the problem: “You can’t recall courage with Scott Walker.” The title is a play on words, in that Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. However, on a first pass, the word “recall” more likely sounds like people are trying to remember something. (“I clearly recall putting my wallet in my pocket, but now it’s missing.”) So, it sounds like we can’t remember anything about courage when it somehow relates to Scott Walker. (“I can’t recall any acts of courage on the part of Scott Walker.”) I’m sure that sits well with the former governor…
In any case, the point is that had the writers read these items aloud, we wouldn’t be debating the issue. Other similar problems happen when you get a bad headline break. In print, when you “break” a headline between columns, you create a natural pause at the end of the first line, similar to a comma. On one line, the head makes sense:
Smith, Jones dead even in polls
However, when split at the wrong spot, you get a zombie movie of sorts:
Smith, Jones dead
even in polls
When this happens in print, it’s often due to layout issues and those issues can lead to some awkward headlines:
(Wow… the soccer team must be exhausted…)
Even in digital copy, this can happen (h/t Testy Copy Editors)
How does one get “robbed accidentally?” (To be fair, it could be worse, I’ve seen “robbed” end up getting spelled “robed,” which always makes me think of Hugh Hefner for some reason…)
Here are a couple points to help you avoid these problems:
- Read your stuff aloud: I often tell students to read their copy out loud, as that will help them find grammar errors, run-on sentences and structural issues. One other benefit is that if you emphasize different words in different ways while reading the copy aloud, you can see how something might not read quite right.
- Watch your swaps for size: In many cases, the headline errors come when people are trying to swap out a longer word for a shorter one or (occasionally) vice versa. This is how you get things like “shot” for “chance” and similar errors.
- Keep an eye on your breaks: When you have a break in a headline, regardless of platform, realize it’s going to shift the way in which the content is read. Therefore, you need to put the breaks in the right spots to avoid people hearing that two candidates are “dead… even in polls”
- Beware of potentially hazardous word choices: We talked about this before when it comes to reading like a 12-year-old boy, but it’s not just the double-entendre sex-ed stuff that can get you into trouble. A headline on suburban sprawl could have a politician hoping to “retard growth.” That word, although technically accurate, has the potential for danger, as the “R-word movement” can clearly explain. All sorts of words can create danger for you, so always think, “How can this go wrong?” and you’ll save yourself some explaining and agony for sure.