see saw

Another BBC website headline that interests me:

Saw 'most successful horror film'

There’s nothing actually wrong with it, of course. It heads a story that starts:

Serial killer franchise Saw has been named the most successful horror movie series by the Guinness World Records.

But the phrasing demonstrates the problems of trying to write headlines that fit into a measured space on a web page (or printed page, for that matter.)

If you’re writing for an established publication, they should have a style guide that needs to be followed. Here on DCTN, I try and stick to some of the style standards that are required for the professional web writing I do, and I use italics for film and book names. When that’s not possible – in a post title, for example, where formatting effects aren’t available – I tend to use inverted commas. In the headline in question, though, those were needed for the phrase ‘most successful horror film’ to indicate that this was not the exact expression, so it all gets very complicated.

Adding the word ‘named’ would solve things:

Saw named ‘most successful horror film’

Except then the phrase wouldn’t fit in the space available. If ‘successful’ slips down to the next line, that becomes too long. In a print publication, it’s possible for layout personnel to adjust the horizontal spacing for a minor problem like that, but since web pages rely on templates, this isn’t usually an option, even if the time and technical expertise are available. (I don’t know how things work at the BBC, but I’m used to the journalists themselves having to fill in the templates with web content and there are no layout experts on the news web sites I have worked with.)

There’s also never much time to spend on headline texts – after all, the joy of the web is its immediacy, and running a story as soon as possible is important. I think, though, that I’d have taken a moment to turn the phrase around and opted for:

‘Most successful horror film’: Saw

At least this would stop the reader expecting a blog post type article describing the journalist’s recommendation of a particularly good horror movie he’s seen.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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