The other day, my father came across a news article that he just had to bring to my attention. Not because of the contents of the article itself… but because of the headline:
Now, reading that, the logical assumption might be that the hitmen had been hired to kill … well, themselves. Which, admittedly, would be an interesting way of combating violent crime, but I can hardly picture very many hitmen considering it worth the money.
If you read the article, of course, you’ll see that the reality was rather different: it was the priests who decided to commit suicide-by-hitmen.
It reminded me, in a way, of something I saw while driving past a video rental store some time ago. They had placed this sign in the window:
As you can see, there were no other signs nearby, nothing to clarify their meaning. Since I was in the car and only had a cell phone camera I wasn’t able to get a good closeup at the time, but with a bit of searching I found a picture (from another store in the same chain) that shows the smaller words more clearly:
Yep. That’s it. The fine print simply says “See store for details” – twice. Are there free kids’ movies? Free movie rentals to children? Are they running some other sort of children’s program for which they don’t charge? That’s a whole lot of “detail” left out, leaving the passersby with only the information that … they are apparently giving away children at these stores. And here I was under the impression that that might be just a little bit, well, illegal, to say the least. One has to wonder whether this particular promotional is in any way responsible for the fact that the store went out of business shortly thereafter.
In both these cases, the initial goal was achieved, in a way: the words did grab attention. The problem is, they did so in a way that was very misleading.
There are lots of ways that that can happen in writing. Sometimes we’re just not thinking things through, or stopping to consider how our words will come across to others. (Either through laziness, or simply because we know what we meant, and it doesn’t occur to us that that might not be what our words actually said.) Other times the misleading element is intentional, designed to startle readers into paying closer attention.
Now, that latter approach can be effective, especially when paired with a humorous approach to a subject. Sometimes it can be just the thing to make a title stand out to potential readers and arouse their curiosity.
It does, however, require a bit of caution in your approach. An unexpected title or first line may catch a reader’s attention, but you still need to keep it. If you fail in that task, the reader will be disappointed – and may even resent the bait-and-switch approach, feeling that you’ve tricked them into thinking this was going to be more interesting than it really was.
Whatever the subject or tone, it’s important to pay attention, and consider your reader’s perspective as well as your own intent. Take time to re-read what you’ve written, and ask yourself: Am I actually saying what I think I’m saying?