Elizabeth Explains

Science Stories and More ——— From Elizabeth Deatrick

A Tern for the Better

There’s a fine line that journalists have to walk when writing headlines: how clever is too clever? A jokey, amusing title can be eye-catching, causing your readers to crack a smile on their way to the article… but a bad pun screams “clickbait.”

Fingal Beach, Tweed Valley, NSW

Greater Crested Terns, which often nest alongside Chinese Crested Terns. Photo by Glen Fergus, via Wikimedia Commons.

The latest article I wrote for Audubon magazine went through many, many revisions–most of them in the “HED” column. The piece described how scientists have used plastic birds to help critically endangered Chinese Crested Terns recolonize an island, and at first, the title opportunities seemed boundless. How about “A Tern for the Better,” or “Tern-ing Over a New Leaf?” But those were far too punny. I didn’t even bring up my personal favorite title: “Tern Down For What.” I could guess the reception it would receive.

Further attempts to nail down the headline swung too far in the other direction: “Tern Island,” though accurate, was dull–and also described dozens of other islands throughout the world. “Dummy Island” was (rightly) rejected for being confusing. “Terns Return, Thanks to Plastic Terns” was long… but we were getting there.

The story eventually ran online as “How Plastic Birds are Bringing Crested Terns Back from the Brink,” and in print as “Safe House.”  The titles may not have been as catchy as some of the other suggestions, but it fit the tone we were working towards.

Besides, Audubon already had a punny tern article: “Is New York City Tern-ing Into a Haven For Seabirds?” Any more would probably have been overkill.


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This entry was posted on November 17, 2015 by in Audubon Articles, Blog Posts, Short Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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