As a newish multiplatform editor at The Washington Post, I’m always looking for help writing great headlines. My mind isn’t naturally filled with puns, I haven’t read reams of poetry and my musical tastes tend to run to classical, jazz and other instrumental fare rather than songs with words. The headline-writing portion of my job has proved more difficult to master than the editing.

Then along came “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genre-bending musical about the life of America’s first treasury secretary. To say that I was obsessed with it is an understatement: I listened to the CD for hours in my car and, along with my equally obsessed 8-year-old daughter, memorized the lyrics. I played with the words in my head, rearranging them and substituting others in their place to see whether the rhyming structure would still work. My brain kept repeating them as I worked the late shift at The Post.

And then, something strange happened: My headlines began to get better. All those days and weeks of listening to “Hamilton” were paying off: I had so internalized the rhythms of the musical that headline possibilities were coming unbidden. I started relaxing instead of choking every time I had to write the words that would entice readers to commit to a story that a reporter had, in some cases, spent months working on.

A deeper dive into the soundtrack made me realize why: The entire musical can be summarized in headlines. A bold, screaming, tabloid-y equivalent of “Headless Body in Topless Bar”? Check. A version of a pithy and polite Economist headline? Can do. Something that would appear in The Post or The New York Times? Absolutely. Let English majors yammer on about trochaic this and iambic that; when I listen to the musical, my mind is subconsciously writing heds, decks and online blurbs.

To prove my point, I played with a few headline formats we use at The Post. I used words from the lyrics and wrote them in Post style (we refrain from screaming headlines). Here’s a format that often appears atop feature stories in the Foreign section. It’s for the song “One Last Time,” in which George Washington summons Hamilton, announces he’s not running for reelection and urges Hamilton to draft a goodbye speech:

Here is an approach we often use for news stories on 1A and the Metro front. It’s for the song “What’d I Miss?” the jazzy, propulsive song that opens Act II. Jefferson has been called home from France, where he had been serving as the American ambassador. He marvels at all that has happened and reckons with the political turmoil at home:

And another 1A/Metro front headline, this time for “Yorktown,” the song that outlines the Battle of Yorktown, the last big battle of the Revolutionary War. The retreating British are heard singing a drinking song, “The World Turned Upside Down,” which nicely captures the seismic political event:

Then, just to really challenge myself, I tried a one-column hed. It’s the bane of any multiplatform editor’s existence, especially if there’s a lot of news to get in. This one is for the song “Right-Hand Man,” and it covers a lot of ground: The beginning of the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s ardent desire to fight, Washington’s frustration with the progression of the battle and Hamilton’s ambition to be a commander in the hopes of improving his social status:

This works for online heds, too. The ideal online hed should be between 80-100 characters, optimized for SEO. In other words, it needs key words and phrases that will be picked up by search engines.

For the song “Guns and Ships,” in which Marquis de Lafayette cuts off British forces and urges Washington to put Hamilton in command, which the general does:

Lafayette steps in, Hamilton takes command as battle shifts

And for “The Room Where It Happens,” possibly the musical’s most well-known song, in which, during a secret meeting, Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison agree on a political compromise: The country’s new capital will be located on the Potomac River, and Jefferson and Hamilton’s party will support Hamilton’s financial system in Congress. Here is a possible online hed and blurb:

Hed: Hamilton granted unprecedented financial power

Blurb: Treasury secretary, Jefferson and Madison compromise over dinner

Not every “Hamilton” song lends itself to this exercise. But listening to the music, which fuses jazz, hip-hop, R&B and British Invasion-style pop, and the pack-everything-in lyrics is as useful as reading Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop for inspiration. I’ve recommended it to the students I teach at the University of Maryland, and if they’ve followed my advice, I expect to be humming along as I grade their final projects.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment