5 Tips for Better Titles

By Mike Cluff

We don’t judge books by covers. At least we aren’t supposed to. Yet, I can safely bet that you have stood in the bookstore aisles thinking: “Now, what do I want to read today? How about a ‘white people almost kissing’ romance? Or maybe a ‘pale, undead teen’ YA novel? Then again you might want the ‘bright symbol on dark background’ adventure.

Guilty. All of us.

However, there is no guilt associated when judging a piece of fiction by its title. No guilt. None. Actually, the opposite applies. I think you should feel guilty if you don’t judge a fictional work by its title — especially when your own work is in question.

And here is a little secret that really isn’t a secret at all: The title is the first bit of information editors read in a submission, and therefore they judge the crap out of a submission by its title. And they definitely don’t feel guilty about it. It’s not their fault, with the ever-growing slush pile, guilt is mostly beaten out of editors.

Of course a good editor won’t stop at the title, but a title will set a precedent, for good or bad. So from an editor, here are some tips on how to create a better title.

1. Say what the story is about, but keep it short.

A title needs to be relevant to its subject and grab your attention. Relevant, not explicitly explanatory. Nobody wants to read the story before they actually read the story, if that makes any sense.

How I Ran Away With My Slave Friend and Sailed Down The Mississippi, Meeting All Types of Interesting People, All While Braving Many Degrees of Danger would be an applicable title for Mark Twain’s classic, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is more effective and efficient as a title.

Fiction authors have to remember that they are writing fiction, not a scientific thesis. So, unless you are writing a story about a scientific thesis, keep your title short.

Authors likewise should be careful about making titles too short. Using one word or a single word proceeded by an article runs the risk of being terribly vague and/or generic — for example “The Sky” or “A Man”. Additionally, short titles run the risk of sharing the same title with a completely different piece of literature. Titles aren’t copyrighted, but having a unique title will help a piece of fiction stand out.

2. Give the audience a hint, but don’t give the story away.

This advice is especially applicable to mysteries. The Adventure of the Speckled Band is a title that makes a lot more sense after the story is read. Still, the hint is in place. If Arthur Conan Doyle would have named the story A Snake in the Vents, Holmes’ reveal would have been mediocre at best.

It is extremely satisfying for readers to connect the dots in any story they are reading. Give your readers a bit of a puzzle in the title, and when they have that ‘aha’ moment, connecting the title to the story, they will be more pleased with themselves and the story.

Just make sure the title isn’t too hard of a puzzle. No need to alienate readers.

3. Stay true to the story, but don’t be dull.

Titles are usually indicative of the tone, genre, and voice of the story. A story written from a third person point of view probably shouldn’t have a title like “My Christmas,” which is a first person point of view statement.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a metaphorical title that fits well for a metaphorical story about communism. Calling the story Communist Animals would have sold the metaphor and the book short.

Simply put, comedic titles are fitting for comedies, mysterious titles for mysteries, etc. Breaking away from this formula might be an effective way to gain attention, but maybe not the type of attention desired.

4. Make it original, but not gimmicky or cliché.

Titles need to be catchy. They need to have a bit of pizzazz. Something that stands out. However, this can be taken too far. Way too far.

Using metaphors and abstract ideas in a title to represent elements of a work is an effective way to build intrigue. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is much better than, let’s say, The Small Guy and His Big Dumb Friend. A good metaphorical title will add depth to a story. Just remember Tip 2 and don’t make the metaphor too deep.

An aspect of this tip, that blends with Tip 1, is to avoid pompous, complex titles designed to impress readers (which is more a statement of an author’s ego than of their work). The title of this article was almost “Titular Conundrums,” but that would have been hypocritical. We’ll use another classic to make this point. The Scarlet Letter is a simple title that builds interest. Hawthorne could have instead used a title like Puritanical Alphabetic Punishments And A Put-Out Preacher and his career would have been over. Instead, Hawthorne chose a simple obscure title, yet one that carries symbolism (the book of Psalms in the Bible associates the color scarlet with sin), and uses it to set the tone for the whole book — obscurity and sin.

And finally, let’s make this clear: rarely are puns and/or plays on existing titles taken seriously. In fact, they usually just annoy editors. If your story is a satire or other form of comedy, then puns and other comedic devices in a title could be true to the story (see Tip 3) and could be appropriate — with a heavy emphasis on ‘could’. If you are going to take the chance with a ‘clever’ or ‘cheeky’ title, you better be damn sure that you aren’t the only one that thinks it is funny. Which leads to Tip 5.

5. Be confident, but stay flexible.

Don’t be cheap with the titling process. Think your title through. But keep in mind that the title might be changed by an editor or a publisher. Don’t be offended.

3 replies
  1. Marilyn K. Martin
    Marilyn K. Martin says:

    Thanks for this article, Mike! Some writers think up a catchy title and then write the story. But I’m the opposite: I write the story then, my brain exhausted, try to think up the “perfect title” to capture its essence. So I end up changing some story titles numerous times during the marketing process. Amazon Kindle must know this dilemma for writers, since they offer you a “sub-title” option for publishing. But I enjoyed your article, since it addressed a “problem” for a lot of us writers. Thanks again.


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