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Episodes: Are you mad at the headline?


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 20 2016

4 min read



Hello, internet:

On behalf of myself, Todd VanDerWerff, but speaking for every single person I know who writes things on the internet, let me ask you a simple question:

Are you mad at the headline?

That thing you're upset about, the thing you're going to yell at the writer about on Twitter or in comments or outside their house: Is it the content of the actual article, or the pithy summarization of said article that necessarily leaves out a bunch of nuance, because it's only a handful of words?

Because, look. I have been writing on the internet for a long time. I know that differences of opinion exist. And I know that I will write things -- maybe even several things -- that will make you angry, angry, angry. It's part of the territory. But when you're going to yell at me about them, I only ask that you be yelling about whatever's actually in the article and not the words on top of it.

The thing I've learned in the past -- especially since moving to a site that has a more general-interest readership and one with a headline process beyond Title of Show: "Episode Title" -- is that what gets people the most riled up is the headline. And nine times out of 10 when somebody is yelling at me about an article, they haven't even bothered to read it. They are, instead, reading the article they've constructed in their head, based off a crude attempt to get them to read the article through salesmanship.

And in that case, if you wanted to say, "Yo, Todd, that headline was terrible," I might agree with you. If it made you so angry that you refused to click on the article, then, hey, it didn't do its job. But, also, nine times out of 10, the headlines I have that make people the angriest are the headlines that go atop some of my most successful pieces overall. So they're working for somebody.

This even goes for most arguments I have about clickbait, which are almost never about, like, deceptive practices in salesmanship, but about headline formats that certain readers don't like. And, sure, I'm tired of the "You won't believe what happened next!" or the "56 ways you can tell you're an X" headline, too, but if you don't like an article headlined with that, it's not the headline's fault, and vice versa.

It's important to remember that most headlines are just advertisements for the article they top. (Come to think of it, lots of people I know are really mad about advertisements, too, so maybe this all stems from the same place.) Like all ads, they will be a little bit flashier or a little bit edgier or a little bit more razzle dazzle than the article itself. A friend of mine said that he considers his job to write a piece that is as nuanced and thoughtful as possible, then come up with a headline that accurately and fairly depicts the article, but also makes it sound like the most exciting thing you've ever read in your life. It's a sleight of hand, like a lot of writing.

And it's also important to remember that at a lot of publications (mostly print ones), the headlines you read aren't even written by the reporter, but by somebody else. (This process has never made sense to me -- as someone who used to write headlines for articles I hadn't written -- but newspapers have been doing it for ages, so who am I to judge?)

So please, please, please don't be like the person who angrily confronted me on Twitter about a piece I'd written, sure I had written about one thing, then apologizing once they read the article and realized we actually agreed with each other. Even at their best, headlines are just a little bit misleading. If you're going to get angry, get angry about the piece. I beg of you.


Mostly just me, but everybody I know who works in this industry has felt this way at one time or another.


Thank you for hanging out during my extended TIFF hiatus! I had planned to do one last newsletter before going, but my travel schedule was not what I thought it was. I'm back now, and I hope to keep going through the next few weeks, until I inevitably have to fly somewhere again.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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