Get Thee to a Punnery


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Riffing on a post I wrote a year ago called “The Sad Story of Illustration on the Web,” the always-incisive Paul Carr writes in the recently launched Pando Daily that, just as illustration has suffered because of the Web, so too has the rich tradition of punning at news publications been in decline since the advent of blogging.

“Here in the blogosphere [there’s] little-to-no place for editorial cleverness in headlines. Search engine optimization of headlines and a relentless drive for clickthroughs means that headlines must either be absolutely directЁ…or infuriatingly opaque.”

While is not a serious news source or a significant publication, Carr’s lament has been my experience here too. I used to really enjoy writing mildly clever headlines for my posts, making frequent and at least passable use of puns. I gave up on that a while back, though, realizing that it wasn’t doing me any good in terms of maximizing the reach of what I write. I changed over to the more direct approach with great reluctance; it felt a lot like giving up something meaningfully human in order to more efficiently appeal to the machines. But hey, they’re going to rule us one day soon anyway, so may as well make nice sooner rather than later. Read Paul’s full post here.



  1. To the extent that I blog at all (and I’m trying to correct that!), I’ve arrived at a hybrid strategy. Technical posts get the straightforward title approach, the better to help search engines and searchers. Commentary or personal posts get something punning, referential, or otherwise obscure for a title. I won’t go so far as to call the latter clever, but it’s a state I at least try to reach.

  2. This is one of the reasons I like The Economist so much. Not just headlines, but often the body copy is clever in a way that makes “respected” American news sources seem dour. I think its a sign of how much they respect their readers

  3. We try to honor the punning tradition when we title each week’s Type News, or at least have a little fun with it. It’s a shame that SEO has apparently made this kind of wordplay an endangered species.

  4. I think the most sage advice on this is, “Write what you want to write and stop chasing algorithms.” Google has an entire of army of brains getting better and better at parsing meaning from the nuances of natural language. Meanwhile some folks keep stubbornly trying to reverse engineer and second guess Google’s “intent”. At some point the output of the two will cross in a sort of modern farce: search engines able to winnow meaning out of subtle usage but finding none of it from those folks. In short, be reasonable. Know the techniques, but don’t let it force your writing hand.

  5. There are a lot of older sites that don’t need to worry about this kind of thing. Many of them still do, but I suggest you take a look at the headlines on The Register for an example of a site that keeps punnery and jokey headlines alive. I’ve been reading The Reg since ’99 and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.

    Right now I can see ‘Page won’t show his ring to prove Google+ engagement’ and ‘BT biz broadband staggers to its feet after 4-hour titsup’ on their homepage.

  6. Creative creative vs informative article titles is the question no one can answer with 100% accuracy.
    For instance once I build website built from scratch I use informative titles and once I get more visitors that shares my content and the snowball start rolling I concentrate my effort on more creative ones so people will open my articles form their RSS readers from Facebook and etc. But you have to reach certain level before start doing it and not all titles can be creative otherwise you will use most search engine traffic.

  7. If the focus is increasing web traffic then let the chips fall where they may. Quality work rarely generates mass appeal

  8. I read recently that last century when engineers and city officials planned the first traffic lights they had significant (and reasonable) fear of public revolt, presumably against the idea of people’s activities being directed by “machines.” No revolt happened, nor has it since (as far as I know), but I can’t help but wonder how our individual and communal minds are subtly evolving in a very particular direction as we adopt machinic thinking.

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