I was reading through internet news article headlines this morning and saw one that read: “Teen girl dead after shooting at Bradenton theater”.

I thought, Oh no! A young girl, watching a movie, shot dead? That’s terrible!

Upon reading the story, though, it turns out there was a fight in the parking lot of a theater, long after business, in the wee hours of the morning, and a young girl was shot as a bystander to the fight. The shooting really had nothing to do with the theater, though anyone who read only the first few lines might now think that theater to be an unsafe place to watch a movie. (It wasn’t until the third paragraph of the story, after the location and name of the theater had been stated, that it was clear that the incident did not happen inside, during a movie.)

The fact that the death occurred at a time when a teen girl probably shouldn’t have been out with a large group of (apparently) rowdy friends and rivals doesn’t make it less-sad that her life was ended. Such a thing is still senseless.

But the original headline tells us something much less accurate than a headline like this: “Late night brawl in local parking lot ends in teen death.”

Missing commas turn TV host Rachel Ray from a perky, bubbly personality into something much darker.
Missing commas transform TV host Rachel Ray from a perky, bubbly personality into something much darker.

Words Matter. So does punctuation.

Most of what I do when I teach creative writing (or when I edit my own creative work) is call into question this simple idea: Are the words on the page allowing the reader to understand what the writer wants understood? (Like the old board game, Othello, this is something that “takes a moment to learn and a lifetime to master.”)

There are so many ways that we fail to write in a way that the reader “gets” what we want them to get. Editing and revision is, primarily, an effort to make the result more closely match the author’s intention.

Punctuation, syntax, spelling…all of these conventions have one real purpose: to allow the text to convey, as closely as possible, the ideas, information, and understanding that the author wants the reader to take in.

I have a plaque on my wall (a gift from a couple of my student-clients) which reads:

  • Let’s eat Grandma!
  • Let’s eat, Grandma!
  • Commas save lives.

Even the Headlines Matter

While I don’t think today’s headline was the worst example I’ve ever seen, I certainly would argue that it was misleading. If I were the manager of that theater, I’d be a little upset by the likelihood that at least a few potential patrons will now associate my business with an unsafe atmosphere, when, in fact, that was not the case.

I do think we sometimes stop paying attention to our words in certain areas of our writing. Usually, these are the areas where we think the reader understands as much as we do as the writer. This happens in both fiction and creative non-fiction workshops. There is a fine line between telling (or showing) too much so that the reader says, “Hey, I’m not a DUMMY!” and making sure you’ve given them enough information to accurately understand the things you want them to understand. (This can be especially tricky for some of my Legacy of Words clients who are often writing for an audience at least one or two generations removed.) Sometimes, in our effort to make sure the readers understand, we undermine our artistic creativity with redundancies, repetitions, and passage that either put the reader to sleep, or insult their intelligence.

Personally, I strive to craft stories that say as much as possible, via concise and subtle, yet rich language. I often fail to meet my own standard, but I keep trying, just the same.

Can you think of an instance (headline, sentence, or other written work) where the INTENTION of the author and the EXPERIENCE of the reader were very much opposed? It could be a humorous example (like eating grandparents or a famous TV chef cooking her pets) or it could be more serious, like the article headline mentioned in the story. If you have something you can share, I’d love to hear it in the comments section below.


What’s The Deal With Headlines?
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