Why You Should Always Use Clear and Relevant Headlines

by | Jan 26, 2016

Sometimes your subconscious brings up some dumb thing you did years ago, and then you get to stay up all night thinking about how awful it was.


In school I only enjoyed English class. English and Language Arts teachers were always my favourites. They paid me as much attention as I thought I deserved. My essays were used as teaching examples and read in front of the class. Lots of A’s and nice comments in red ink.

I had one teacher who was exceptional at maintaining control of the class, and told great stories. He had recurring laryngitis, and we would all lean forward to catch his unbelievable punch lines, told in a raspy whisper.

There was an accident where someone was swept downstream through icy whitewater, rescued with seconds to spare before tumbling into a butterchurn waterfall. There were adventures that ended with him sneaking into the house at 3am, only to find Dad in his room, sitting on the bed with a sarcastic expression. There were horse penises.

Great stuff. Anyway, I got A’s in that class as well. I avoided group projects by writing long essays. I was left alone to read doorstop-sized novels while everyone else struggled through slim paperbacks. It was the only provincial exam I did well on.

By the end of high school, I hadn’t made a good impression on any adults in my life, and had accomplished little aside from those long essays.

The band teacher, I fought with continuously, and did not practice my instrument. 

In chemistry, I got nosebleeds and frequently left class to deal with them. 

In social studies I wrote poetry instead of working on assignments and goaded the teacher into telling stories about India. 

In math I made an effort sufficient to keep passing only because the math teacher wouldn’t let me go to track meets if I failed. 

In track I ran slowly and didn’t throw the discus very far.

In Bible class I wrote angry rants and violent song lyrics on the back of test papers, as well as doodling “disturbing imagery”. On the front of those papers I wrote what I thought were scathing criticisms of Dr. James Dobson. (Please let those papers stay missing forever).

This book is just straight up mental. It tells you at exactly which base you cross from being cool with God into putting your soul in danger of hellfire. Spoilers: it comes before "touching each other's hair."

This book is just straight up mental. It tells you at exactly which base you cross from being cool with God into putting your soul in danger of hellfire. Spoilers: it comes before “touching each other’s hair.”

I was sent repeatedly to the principal’s office. I avoided delivering my senior chapel presentation, the source of at least 50% of my stress and nosebleeds that year, by procrastinating my way out of it.

At a summer camp where I worked as a counsellor, I was reprimanded for bringing “inappropriate books” to camp and leaving them within reach of campers. I can’t imagine what they found in that book that was inappropriate – it was so boring that I never finished it. Oh well.

At the library where I worked part time, I was scolded for reading in the stacks instead of shelving books. 

And I was thrown out of the spring musical for missing practice due to audiologist appointments.

So English was the only class where I did anything noteworthy.


At that after-school job in the library, I found amazing books. The job itself was dull, but I never lacked great reading material.

One was How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater, which was every bit as good as the title. Another was The Warrior’s Apprentice, first of series that turned out to be my favourite of all time. It beats Harry Potter and Discworld by a wide margin. Another was Sin and Syntax, a style guide for those who would break the rules of the English language for maximum impact. This is the one that got me in trouble.


The thing to do after you finish high school, is either go to college or get a job. I attempted college. It didn’t go well. I enjoyed arguing with my philosophy classmates and writing poems for my English elective, but Micro- and Macroeconomics gave me more nosebleeds. The education seemed too expensive and too much work for the job it qualified me for – part-time barista, perhaps. I stopped, and set my sights on Katimavik.

Nevermind what Katimavik is or why I was thrown out of it. The point is that I needed letters of reference,  and two years out of high school I had still failed to do anything interesting with my life. The only person I could think to ask was my old English teacher. And I wanted to be sure that he read the email and responded to it, even if in the negative. So I pulled out old Sin and Syntax, and opened it to the section about writing compelling subject lines to emails.


This is the first google image result for “airsex”. I don’t know what to tell you.

airsex“, the book suggested. No, that wasn’t right. “Prepare to be overwhelmed“. Not strictly accurate – there was nothing overwhelming about 20-year-old me. “writer threatening suicide” was another example the book cited, as an attention-grabbing subject line. It would get attention, but not, I thought, the right kind. I settled on “I love you“, as the book guaranteed that this was a title unlikely to be ignored.

I don’t know why I did that. Please don’t ask. However, the only email address I had handy for that teacher was the one that he shared with his wife. So if they did indeed receive the message, it cannot have been very welcome. Never got a reply. Haven’t spoken to either of them since. Hope I never do.

The moral of the story is that if you are writing to ask for a reference, or indeed for any other thing, you should make your subject line clear and relevant. In this case “Request for reference” would have made a perfectly adequate subject.

The second moral is, don’t just do stuff that books tell you to do. Get a second opinion first.