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Heads, he wins

If trying to sum up a story brilliantly in a few words is an art, then Drew McQuade is an artist.

Published May 3, 2005

Some journalists gave some other journalists some prizes in April. No, not the Pulitzers. There's no Pulitzer for headline writing.

Headline writers don't even get bylines. Maybe they should, since many writers say writing short is harder than writing long. Try telling a story in five words, or, if you're Drew McQuade, in two or three.

McQuade, assistant sports editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, won a national headline writing award from the American Copy Editors Society last month. He won in the not-too-big, not-too-small category: for papers with a circulation between 100,001 and 250,000. (The St. Petersburg Times is in the bigger-than-that category. We didn't win this year.)

Headlines are a big deal at the Daily News, a feisty tabloid which is like an annoying little brother to the larger, more traditional Philadelphia Inquirer. Each day an urgent, screaming headline goes on the cover.

McQuade, 54, designs pages, makes sure the section meets deadline and writes the Page 2 headline. Not the biggest headline of the day, sort of the third-biggest. He claims he's not the best headline writer at his paper, fancy pants award notwithstanding.

We called him at home in the afternoon, because headline writers are nocturnal.

When you meet people at parties and tell them what you do for a living, do they know what you're talking about?

No, not really. You can just go through life and be anonymous. Sometimes you wouldn't mind just getting a notice. You meet people in the street, and all they want to know is, "Do you get your own byline?" No, I borrow someone else's. They really just want to know if you write. There are some savvy people who say, "Who does the headlines? Those headlines are great." I say, "I do some of them." They say, "Okay, which ones?" I don't have a list.

Sure you do. Come on. Which ones?

One of my heads one time appeared on TV in New York. Dallas Green was the old Phillies coach; he went to coach the Mets. They were awful. It would be like going to hell or something.

I wrote, "Dallas in Blunderland."

Some team was ahead a whole lot of points and the other team came back and they almost lost, but they won. I think it was the Sixers. I did, "Feeling OK after seeing shrink." That's a fairly new one.

What was your favorite?

When Larry Bowa, the Phillies manager, went to anger management, I wrote: " "F' in anger management."

As in, "F-ing" anger management?

Yeah, it's not that subtle, really. Shortly thereafter he was blowing up and getting kicked out of the games. I didn't get much reaction, but that's one of my favorites. It never would have run in the New York Times, but I don't work at the New York Times.

One of them was kind of controversial.

All right, let's hear it.

It was when Tupac Shakur died. I wrote, "It's a rap." Which is clearly insensitive, but it kind of fit his lifestyle. I don't know Tupac's family, so I don't feel bad about it. I just suggested it. I didn't necessarily think they were going to use it. That was in 1996, and we still get letters now about that "racist headline." We're kind of edgy. We're a tabloid. Not a supermarket tabloid; we don't make stuff up. We walk the thin lines sometimes of good taste.

What's your process like?

I get up and walk down this hallway to get away from everything. I'll walk down this long hallway; it's a three-minute walk, no one's ever there. And I hope that when I open the door, the head is there.

If I really get stuck, I call up the cliche finder (on the Internet). I won't use the cliche, but I'll twist it. I have all these cliches stuck in my head, all waiting to be transformed.

Do you have a secret list of sports verbs? Crush, oust, blah blah?

No, no, no, no. Not a secret list. But you'd never say "beat" somebody. We don't use "win" or "lose."

Do you run out?

Yeah, sure. Then you make them up.

As in: "Sixers ranshaq Lakers," which is from your winning portfolio.

You look at the names. Nicknames can be good. One time Randall Cunningham, who was quarterback of the Eagles, came back one year professing himself to be wise. Everyone knew him as this hammy little guy who was full of himself. I wrote, "More cunning, less ham."

What's on your desk?

A picture of my son, running. The track team I coach. A couple newspapers. One has a picture of Anna Kournikova. I just like her. The headline is DISH STRESS. She's always in some sort of distress. Somebody gave me a cheerleader bobblehead doll. It's not even an attractive cheerleader.

A thesaurus?

No, no, no, no. I don't have a thesaurus. You can get that stuff on the Internet.

Tell me how you wrote your Red Sox headlines.

I wrote: RUTHLESS! And SCRAMBINO! which was the big head inside. It wasn't one I even thought of in advance. Sometimes if you have it before things unfold, you don't catch the immediacy of it. I have to tell you, RUTHLESS! was on the spur of the moment. The game was still going on, and I wasn't sure what the heck I was going to do.

Have you ever written the same headline twice?

Sometimes I do, if like, 16 years have passed and nobody but me will know.

It's kind of like haiku. Have you ever tried writing poetry?

I do some haiku. I've tried those. It's very, very difficult to do. You have to say a whole lot in a couple of words.

Can you send us some haiku?

(Later, by e-mail)

Budding bloom service

send me some flowery prose

but please hold the thorns

Do you think you've done your best writing in two-word increments?

No, I like to think I do my best writing in the novel I've never finished and never will finish.

So, can you write the headline for this story?

(He did.)

Drew McQuade's winning headlines

RUTHLESS! -- Red Sox oust Yankees, ghost, advance to World Series

BOOS ALWAYS ON TAP -- Philly fans champions of holding grudges forever

FLUSH OUT THE JOHNS (A front page news head for a story about exposing guys who visit prostitutes)

JUST A MUDDER DAY AT THE OFFICE -- Celebrated horse Smarty Jones returns to roots to win regular race on sloppy surface

SCRAMBINO -- Red Sox sweep Cards, squash "Curse of the Bambino' with World Series win

[Last modified May 3, 2005, 14:16:02]

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