Clear Writing Vs. Clever Writing: Why Headlines Can Be Descriptive AND Compelling

Image courtesy of Linchpin Bloggers

Image courtesy of Linchpin Bloggers

I have opined on my bearish view of Newsweek’s future as the venerable magazine title muddles its way to an online-only future.

Now from the opposite end of the competitive spectrum comes an insightful Columbia Journalism Review interview with now-retired Time Inc. Editor in Chief John Huey that gives rise to thoughts about the nature of headline writing in the 21st century.

First, kudos to CJR for one of the more clever titles of the year: deciphering the humor behind the headline  “Huey, Luce and the news” requires knowledge of the story’s subject, the founder and the nature of the subject’s long-time employer…and mediocre 1980s pop-rock. The profound and the profane, as it were.

But this is no idle or self-indulgent punning as these five words do indeed capture the very essence of the piece (if only some of the story’s keywords, “Time Inc.” being most notably missing).

And in fact, the best takeaway of the story is found in the author’s description of Huey’s pithy take on writing for SEO:

Master of the homespun maxim (delivered in a wry Southern drawl), Huey famously summed up the recipe for search-friendly headlines: “Clear is the new clever.”

That’s it! “Clear is the new clever.” It’s the enduring phrase many of us have been seeking to get across the idea that the old school of headline writing most of us grew up with — chockful of keywords, information and unambiguous meaning — is the new school of headline writing. “Clear is the new clever.” Just tell it like it is. The readers and the search bots will take over from there.

But here’s the rub: There seems to be a mistaken assumption among many editors that clear writing and clever writing are by their very nature mutually exclusive, that clear writing is for the web and clever writing is for print.

Nothing could be further from the truth. People, we are wordsmiths, for print and for the web. We are paid by society to manipulate Roman letters the way programmers manipulate code and physicists manipulate numbers — in the service of conveying cogent, cohesive truths. That we have the extra challenge of making such truths emotionally compelling and entertaining makes the work all the more enjoyable and our presence as editors all the more valuable.

A long-ago headline has stayed with me for it was clear and clever. Buried in a back page of a major metro newspaper’s sports section, printed in perhaps 18-point type, it captured the tennis-tournament victory and subsequent financial winnings of Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia over the American Pat Cash:

Czech Checks
Cash, Cashes

Exquisite. Clear AND clever. I have envisioned many times its author admiring his (or her) miniaturized handiwork the next day in print, savoring the sparse prose that nonetheless captured an event much larger than the headline’s mere 24 characters. S/he had created it, and it was good.


The Content of Our Marketing


Content-MarketingWhile some in media fear competitive encroachment and a fuzzying of the editorial/advertising line, I for one am encouraged by the spike in spending on content marketing. We in b-to-b media long have known that potential business buyers don’t always fall sway to the image marketing and emotional appeals that dominate consumer marketing; that instead they seek concrete facts, actual-use scenarios and testimonials about products and services.

Hallelujah, then, for content marketing (which by the way is more than ably promoted and defined by the Content Marketing Institute). Content marketers aid business media in informing our audiences while simultaneously relieving us of some of the pressure for favorable editorial coverage of our advertisers (who long have valued relevant content, clearly). Advertisers, incidentally, also frequently need our media platforms to drive traffic to their content — so hallelujah for us too.

The career prospects for we content types also clearly aren’t diminished by this development.

A Bright Future for Content Marketing?

But not all is paradise in the content marketing garden; in fact there even seems to be a contentious state in the field owing to a lack of buy-in from the “C-suites.”

Is content marketing a fad or does it have a bright future? I personally think it does. But take a look at this infographic (courtesy of Marketo; click to enlarge) and decide for yourself…