Online : Catching the reader’s eye — and holding it

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A couple of The Hindu’s writers asked me — isn’t that the job of the desk? This was when readers pointed out odd constructions in their pieces; something unusual in the output of these experienced journalists. They were correct: in one case the desk had overlooked an obvious error, in another, an error had been introduced while editing. Basic subbing skills require an eye for facts and good English; the desk should ensure that what appears in print is clear, concise and correct. Unfortunately this aspect — editing — does not get the importance it deserves.

What attracts, or should attract, the reader to the stories are headlines. This is really the creative part of subbing — not only should the headlines be catchy, they should also fit the space available. To capture the readers’ attention headlines need to be crisp and short, condensed and direct, and should never have the reader guessing what is sought to be conveyed.

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Every day, I have readers pointing out deficiencies in both editing and headlining. (What I myself note is another matter, for when I ceased to be News Editor I also gave up the practice of going thorough the whole paper and marking in red the slips — an effort that was welcomed by some as a learning tool, and totally disliked by a few.) Headlines have never been The Hindu’s strong point. There was a time when the uniform single column layout in the paper made all headlines into what are known as ‘labels’. Redesigning made more column space available but the old habits stayed. There is also the tradition of being sober. (I recall Associate Editor K. Balaraman’s red pencil comment on a galley proof of one of my headlines, “Too sizzy.”) The last column (May 11, 2009) listed some examples of faulty usage that appeared in the paper and said instances of faults in editing and headlines would follow.

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One of the basics of subbing is to make paragraphs small, so that the monotonous grey of type is broken by white space. This rule is more applicable to the opening paragraph of a report where brief sentences should enable the reader to grasp the main point at first glance. Sometimes an attempt to change the opening sentence can result in a fiasco. “A senior Al-Qaeda leader, thought to have been killed by the Pakistani military last summer, has reappeared …,” read Hasan Suroor’s original report. This appeared in the paper as, “A senior Al-Qaeda leader has threatened India … He is thought to have been killed …”

“Members of the public are urged to report crime without fear of any follow-up action.” So the police will sleep on the complaints? (K. Balakesari, Chennai).

“They were discharged from hospital after giving first aid.” They got or were given first aid (P.V. Mohan, Kochi).

“He hospitalised after complaints of delirium and dehydration.” He was hospitalised with symptoms, not complaints (Dr. K. Ahmed Anwar, Perintalmana, Kerala).

“Mr. Subba Rao withdrew his remark as they tantamounted to character assassination.” Tantamount is not a verb and has no derivative (Jagannada Rao Pannala, Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh).

A report on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s heart surgery refers to “removal of blocks in Dr. Singh’s heart.” The blocks are in the arteries (S. Gurumurthy, Chennai).

“Stripped naked by the mob and her virginity grossly violated in public, without any help from the police present there.” Should the police have helped the mob? (S. Sajan, Kollam, Kerala).

“The mother being in no position to feed the baby, was reluctant to take him as she was in no position to feed him.”

“A reminder of how long the Old Printer’s Devil has been with us.” Printer’s devil is an assistant or errand boy in a printer’s office and does not mean a printing mistake. (Dr. John K. Mammen, Thiruvananthapuram).

A Madurai report said — “Walking 10 miles a week would prevent 65 per cent of heart attacks; inactive persons walk 4000 ft, active persons between 4000 and 7000 feet and very active persons 10000 feet a day.” Sumathy Selvaraj (Pattiveeranpatti, Tamil Nadu) wonders what these figures mean as she knows only the metric system.

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The list can go on and on. I now pick up a few headlines. The Hindu subeditors’ problem often is not condensing the words to fit the limited space available but to pack in words to expand the headline, often in two decks, to avoid any white space. This sometimes leads to convoluted expressions, obfuscating what is sought to be conveyed. It also results in repetition of words in the two lines, which is a ‘no’ in headlining. As in this example: “Afraid of having a brush with job loss — consequent to economic downturn leaving construction business hardly in an upbeat mood.” I had to read it again and again to catch the import. Not what a reader in a hurry can do.

Headlines have to be bright to catch the eye. But they should neither be clever, nor affected, as in these: “A glorified Rahman.” “Musicians in harmony shower rhapsodies.” “Honour for man for whom music is cup of tea.” “In sync with zinc plates to etch and engrave their artistic skills.” “Residents’ fear and anxiety cloud sewerage pumping stations and treatment plants.” “Road bristles with stench.” “Mangoes arrive in dribs and drabs.” (Dribs and drabs is colloquial. I think one can’t object to colloquialisms, if dadagiri can appear in an editorial, and in its headline too without quotes or italics.)

“The majority say thought of going disabled-friendly is appreciable” (The same wording in the text also). This heading appeared three days after this column noted that appreciable does not mean worthy of appreciation.

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N.K. Nihalani (Aurangabad) has an eye for the oddly-worded headlines and is a regular communicator. A couple of his citings from the online edition: “Clarify on Kasuri’s statement.” “Chidambaram and MEA sing different tune” (tunes). “Abstains from Parliamentary Board meeting” (absent is not abstain).

“Engine hits man, dies.” How did the engine die, asks V. Krishnamoorthy, Srirangam. He also has these: “Imports from China will have to accompany a certificate” (what should accompany what?), “Absentees rise” (How can they?).

“Ry. Zone for State still a far cry.” “A far cry” means “something very different” (A.N. Balan, Thiruvananthapuram).

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“Kanna comes out with flying colours.” It should be comes off, and not flying colours when the report says “thin majority of 3312 votes” (P.V. Ramana Rao, Guntur).

“Congress building bridges with estranged allies.” Bridges to (M.V. Subba Rao, Vijayawada).

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You can depend on a crossword compiler to discover meanings for words that you did not know existed. A wrong usage I cited in my last column, instigate for initiate, is not wrong, points out C.G. Rishikesh (Chennai). Generally ‘instigate’ is used to mean ‘cause something to happen’ but it also means “to initiate,” according to some dictionaries.



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