Titles. What agony. How to condense an entire piece of writing into a single phrase or solitary word? How to grab the reader’s attention in a heartbeat? Whether fiction or blog post, essay or email subject line, without a great title, the rest of your content – even those spiffy subsections or chapter headings – may as well not even exist.
First Of All…
It’s nearly impossible to come up with a great title for anything before you have polished your piece of writing. Objectively speaking, crafting a title should not be overly stressful, if you’ve been listening to what you are writing.
|On first drafts, it’s perfectly fine to use the title as a label placeholder, or what authors like to call a “working title,” but you ultimately want to think of the title as an intriguing door into the writing, particularly when it concerns nonfiction writing.
Fair warning: don’t settle on your first idea. Most often your first three to five ideas are not your best. It takes time for your brain to sort through the superficial junk and dig down into real creativity. Try the “Take 10” approach when you write your titles.
So, Who Are You Writing For?
I realize you’re tired of hearing this, but know your audience first. How old are they? What are their interests? Do you have regular readers? Are you well respected in your field? Or is this your first rodeo? Are you relying on search engines and social media to drive traffic to your site, or simply the buzz that comes from good ole’ word of mouth marketing?
If you’ve created a rapport with your readers, it’s likely they’ll continue reading your content, regardless of the headline or title. Although (*cue sappy cliché music again*) repeat and new readers alike will always judge a book or article by its cover – and that includes the title, folks. Make sure the title is relevant to your readers, that it makes sense, promises on certain content delivered in the text, and takes no more than a second to read. Apply this handy search engine optimization strategy to your story, essay, blog post, email, or script: whittle a title’s length to within 60-80 characters and include keywords.
I must confess that titles, chapter names, headings, and subheads happen to be a guilty pleasure of mine. Not that I’m particularly great at them, but they really are such a romp for the wordsmith and music lover. I say music lover because the rhythm within a title’s words is what first catches the reader’s attention. How it rolls around in the mouth and bounces around in your brain. On the flipside, I’d warn that overly sonorous titles cannot be faithfully translated into other languages; much, if not all, of the potency and nuance will be lost, an indeed, an entirely new meaning may come of the interpretation. When crafting “deep” titles, proceed with caution and due diligence.
A Slightly Inconvenient Truth
Alas, if you are an aspiring author, realize that you may have very little say in the final title chosen by the publisher, whose marketing team has this process down to a focused-group science, so that your title is able to compete for reader attention on Amazon and in bookstores amidst thousands of others. That said, if you know you’ve nailed the title on your own, champion its inclusion as loudly as you can.
10 Ways to Write Tantalizing Titles
- Try a witty twist on a famous title that happens to nail your subject perfectly. (But beware: the title of the classic may show up more often in searches than your own – unless you trump its popularity.)
- Use tension to pull the reader in two different directions. (“The Perfect Storm”; “The Bone Detectives”) “Killer Whales” might be your working title, but “Intelligent Assassin: The Killer Whale” makes the reader pause and wonder.
- Consider theme to hint at a deeper meaning. Summarize your theme in a few words and then change it up several times.
- Underline significant words and phrases in your writing and reassemble them in various ways. (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”; “Requiem for a Dream”)
- Be direct: name the piece after the main character or topic (“Dracula”)
- Use song titles for inspiration. I’m often streaming ambient music while I write, and the titles of some songs blow me away. (“Moon Kiss”; “Closing the Sky”)
- Try out a popular number: 0, 1, 3, 7, 10. Numbered lists are catchy and memorable (if not a bit overdone these days.) Movies, YA novels, and blog posts have cornered the market on lists and numbered titles: (“10 Things I Hate About You”; “Zero Dark Thirty”; “1984”)
- Attempt a GERUND PROTAGONIST formula, a title structure that strikes at the human condition (“Searching for Bobby Fischer”; “Being John Malkovich”; “Bowling for Columbine”)
- Into the formula approach? Try this one: NUMBER + NOUN + OF + NOUN. (“100 Years of Solitude”)
- Go for the ultimate smackdown in brevity: the single word. (“Uglies” “Beloved” “Holes”)
Hooray! There really are none when it comes to titles!
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