Should it read “I Think, I Can” or “I Think, Therefore I Can?” (Were we feeling more The Little Engine That Could or more Descartes?)
It was tempting to pay homage to a philosopher. This is an institution of higher learning, after all. But for this issue’s cover headline, we settled on the allusion to a children’s book, because the mindset of its valiant little locomotive better encapsulates the work of associate professor of psychology Alia Crum. We added a comma to subtly shift the meaning. (Punctuation saves lives, as the joke goes; it can also save headlines.)
Those were just two of the 60 headlines we brainstormed for the cover. For the story itself, which describes Crum’s research on how subjective mindsets can alter objective reality, we considered 32 options.
In Stanford headline meetings, there are bonus points for puns. Double meanings. Cultural references that transcend generations. And, above all, making everyone laugh. (Incidentally, this can be equally well accomplished with a brilliant headline or a terrible one.)
As soon as we make our selection, we cheer the staffer who first blurted it out.
Once we have a few that are worthy of general acclaim, we make a short list. We debate their pros and cons. Are they true to the story? Will they intrigue the reader? Do they go with the art? Often the competition is tough: For the story about Crum’s research, “Better Believe It” narrowly triumphed over “Placebo Power.” Sometimes the winner is transcendently obvious: It’s hard to beat “Among the Stars” for a story about the three alumnae on NASA’s Artemis team, one of whom might become the first woman to set foot on the moon.
As soon as we make our selection, we cheer the staffer who first blurted it out. Over time, everyone gets celebrated. In this issue, props go to Tracie White (“I Think, I Can”), Sam Scott (“Better Believe It”), Jennifer Worrell (“Among the Stars” and “Stanford IRL,” a catch-up with the seven members of the Class of ’24 we’ve been following), and Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, (“Strength in Numbers,” about using data science for social change, and “The Botez Gambit,” a profile of a celebrity chess player).
You might ask why we spend upwards of 15 minutes, as a group, crafting a single headline. It’s not because we love what we do or enjoy spending time together, although those things are true. Packaging stories with just the right photography, illustration, headlines, and captions is not simply part of the joy of making a magazine; it’s part of the responsibility. A good headline can make the difference between whether readers dive into a story or turn the page. We know you’re busy, and we want to grab and hold your attention.
Better believe it.
Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.