Several years ago, when I was first starting out as a professional writer, I received the opportunity to work for a couple of monthly science magazines published by the American Chemical Society. Eager to impress and excited at the thought of seeing my name bylined, I dove into every project with relish…and apparently very little forethought.
A regular ritual at the magazines was for the entire editorial staff to sit down every couple of weeks and hammer out the best headlines for each of the next issue’s articles. Rather than leave the job to the individual writers, my Editor felt this was the best way to get the best ideas. In principle, I agree with him, although you also have to be wary of sliding into group-think, where the lowest common denominator wins…but I digress.
In the first such meeting in which I was invited to participate—second week on the job—we were trying to come up with a title for the health article, which discussed the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia and the fact that many women with the infection didn’t know they had it. After listening to a couple really boring titles, I decided to show how clever and punny I was, and chose to riff off the title of a movie that was popular at the time.
Chlamydia. A quiet killer. It was obvious.
Silence of the Clams!
Silence of the editorial meeting, more like. My Editor looked at mean, turned his head sideways, and said “You’re serious.”
Oh, oh. Something’s gone wrong. Something doesn’t make sense. Why is everyone looking at me like that? Why is…? Oh, shit.
Luckily, everyone in the office thought it was funny, probably more because of the look on my face rather than any inherent amusement. But that’s the point. I kept the job and wrote much better headlines—or at least more acceptable ones—for several more years.
Since that day, I have instituted (if only for myself) what I call “the 12-year-old boy rule”.
Basically, if you want to print anything, you should always say it out loud in front of a 12-year-old boy, and if he even so much as smirks, there is something salacious in your idea and you really need to rethink it.
Still, every once in a while, I wonder if I couldn’t make that title work (other than for porn).
And of course, I am still addicted to puns, much to the chagrin of most people who know me.