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.


Weakly Publishing: Why Newsweek Won’t Succeed As a Digital-Only


Newsweek’s final print cover.

Newsweek has published its last print edition with an appropriately mixed-themed cover: its distinctive masthead flying high over a long-ago NYC skyline to symbolize its past print glory, and a Twitter hashtag tagline to represent the online era that ultimately killed the magazine.

Will Newsweek survive the jump to digital-only? I’m not bullish on its chances. The brand as a go-to source of content, regardless of platform, has been losing its journalistic mojo steadily for some time – dwelling neither at the cutting edge of content nor capable of generating newsworthy (if aesthetically and journalistically questionable) controversies like its competitive twin TIME and its altered-O.J. Simpson and Mom-breastfeeding covers.

When Jon Meacham left as Newsweek editor in 2010, just after the magazine was sold to the Daily Beast, it could have been seen as getting out just as the going might be getting good. Newsweek would now be tethered not to a print-focused parent (the Washington Post) but to an online trendsetter and a source of 24/7 news. But now Meacham looks absolutely prophetic in his departure – moreseo that his Thomas Jefferson biography was #3 on the New York Times bestseller list just as Newsweek print was going under for the last time.

It seems as if more magazine operations should take their cues from the Atlantic – focusing on an entirely new personality and life online while focusing on what makes a print product good even better, all pulled together by a distinct worldview. But perhaps Newsweek’s very disposition as a weekly– not frequent enough for the online era, too frequent for the leisurely stroll of a monthly– was inescapable.

So I”m betting an ability to adapt to new frequency, not a new platform, ultimately will do in Newsweek completely. And I will mourn its passing. Newsweek’s former ubiquity – in newsstands, on coffeetables, in doctor’s offices, on buses and trains – seemed like it might last forever.