Today I have a treat for you: tips on display writing from Kisha Ferguson, writer, editor and journalism teacher. I’ve been an admirer of Kisha’s since her Outpost Magazine days (she was the founder and editor), and I’m excited to share her advice on Editfish.
It’s no surprise so many journalists end up being spin doctors, speech writing flaks, or ad copy writers. In order to entice a reader to read, you have to first sell them on what you want them to read. Storytelling comes second. And these days, it’s no longer “Come take my hand, gentle reader,” but rather, “Read this or else.” The visual noise is becoming louder as more and more information competes for our attention, increasing the need for every headline to scream.
There is no denying that writing a he(a)d, de(c)k, teaser, bumper, banner, value-added, kicker, sub-headline, etc., is an art. A great example of this is Twitter. Cramming enough info into 140 characters is an amazing exercise in explanatory brevity, especially when your aim is pushing someone to read an article they can’t see at that exact moment. In other words, getting them to “click on through to the other side.” (More on that later.)
Having gone back and forth over the years between working in magazines and TV news and current affairs, I’ve managed to apply that art to both media. Especially now, as I primarily bang out news copy for a living, viewers “read” TV a lot. Talking heads and voiceovers now compete with screen text, often scrolling, popping up or changing several times within a two-minute item.
I was once told to “Find the meat and sell it,” as a way of coming up with great headlines. Replace “meat” with pathos or drama…but always remember the selling part of it. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re waiting for a visit from the clever copy fairy.
1. The best things in life are 3’s.
When in doubt, employ the magic power of “3” to sum up the elements in your story, preferably with alliteration: “Guns, God and Guantanamo” or “Coffee, Capitalism and Culture.” Even better, throw in an ampersand or a plus sign…works especially well on cover copy.
2. I’m OK, you’re (not) OK.
Ask a thought-provoking question. Put the onus on the readers – using “you” – to make them question themselves or their beliefs, or worry about something they never thought to worry about before, thereby giving them almost no choice but to read the next few graphs. This is especially effective in women’s and parenting publications, where inducing fear, a sense that something’s wrong, sells the magazines and the products advertised inside: “Are you getting the most from your 90-minute workout?” “Do you really know the man you’re sleeping with?” “What dangers are in your child’s lunchbox?”
3. You’re a poet and you know it.
Use rhyme to riff on common expressions: “The Great Stall of China” (a story about a three-day traffic jam); “Lush Hour” (about drinking on the tube in London); “Coffee, Tea or D.V.T.” (how people develop blood clots on airplanes).
4. Perturbed lines.
Riff on song titles or lyrics. See graph #3.
5. Love it and list it.
Before the rise of data visualizations, infographics and “charticles,” there was the list – short, punchy bits of info that fall somewhere between copy and display copy. Lately, they seem to occupy more space in front-of-book sections, often replacing articles rather than complementing them.
6. One word to rule them all.
A single word can make a big impact, especially if splashed across a double-page spread, and even more so if you can invoke a sense of doom and gloom: “Aftermath: The Story of…” Or use a fairly banal word, hopefully given a great graphic treatment, followed by an alarming premise: “Water: Why the World Will Soon Run Out of It.”
7. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
You’ll always get someone’s attention if you can somehow use “Armageddon,” particularly when it comes to fairly benign events or weather stories: “Snowmageddon.”
Using the “gate” from “Watergate” as a suffix never fails. I now regularly screen All The President’s Men in the journalism classes I teach, after students asked me why they keep seeing “gate” in headlines.
Kisha Ferguson (@kishaferguson) has spent a lifetime putting words in a readable order so they make some kind of sense. As well as editing other people’s words, she also teaches a generation of wannabe journos how to make it in the big, bad media world. She’s currently working on a book and a documentary despite a full-time job delivering bad news by writing and producing TV news and current affairs stories.