What’s in a title?

It can be a challenge to find the right balance between form and function when crafting a title.  A title does not merely identify a work: it can help sell, promote, explain, compliment, highlight, obscure, or personify the meaning and message of a piece of art.

Last Friday I mentioned that Jamie Ford has recently completed his novel, and is currently wrestling with the sticky task of renaming his work.  For Jamie, “The Panama Hotel” served as the working title for his novel, but now it’s time to give his baby a real name.  He cites previous literary works in his blog post as examples of how a title might make or break a work, which begs the Shakespearean questions, “What’s in a title?” and “Would a book by any other name hit The Classics shelf?”

I work as a research assistant for a forest biologist supporting her upcoming book.  For years we have referred to her book using a short, effective title.  Now that she’s going to press, she has selected a more shelf-appropriate name.  I think it might take me months to stop calling her book by its original name.  The original working title has become a comfortable place holder, while the new title helps to reflect the intended purpose of this book as it makes its way in the world.

The trouble with titles is endemic, and I am not immune.  At our inaugural Show and Tell Friday I shared a piece of my poetry from a couple years ago entitled Singing of the Spheres.  Bernita Harris provided some valuable feedback, explaining that while the work is unique, the title is not; I agree with her: the title serves its function well enough, but the form leaves much to be desired.

When I first wrote Singing of the Spheres, it was without a title.  I finished my piece, watched the sunrise, and considered how I could invoke stellar imagery (no pun intended) into the title.  It seemed that without it, the reader might miss the thread of star-and-sun symbols throughout the piece.  Regardless of whether that is true, the title Singing of the Spheres doesn’t necessarily accomplish this any better than, “Star Light, Star Bright,” the latter of which being equally trite.

I think about effective titles on a daily basis with blogging.  Strong keywords and clear titles are important in blogging (that is, if you’re remotely interested in your readership).  Along with all the usual considerations of clarity and strength in titles, effective blog titles also make use of search engine technology to help attract traffic.  I can usually see in my blog metrics when a particular title is not working, or when it is highly effective.  (Lorelle on WordPress has more thoughts to share on the subject of Writing Effective, Attention-Getting Headlines and Titles on Your Blog).

So without the realtime responses of the internet, how do you evaluate the effectiveness of your titles?  How do you face the challenge of finding a slick, unique, snappy name for your artwork that will endure?  What’s the magic recipe for a great title?  I do not have an answer, but I do have a theory.

Here are five elements which I think contribute to a strong title.  Please feel welcome to share your thoughts, tips, and experiences with titles in the comments!


How to Craft Strong Titles:

I. Be Brief

If you’ve ever read an academic or scientific journal, you will appreciate the fine virtue of brevity.  In some instances, long descriptive titles are definitely appropriate.  For many of us, “Short, Sweet, and to the Point” are effective (albeit cliché) words to live by.

II. Be Specific

Titles should address the specific purpose, focus, meaning, or intention of a given work.  Nathan Torkington at O’Reilly Media explained this effectively in his article, How to Title Your Talk,

It’s the same with Cookbook recipe titles: name the recipe after the problem the user has, not the answer you’re giving them. They don’t know the answer (that’s why they’ve got your book), they only know their problem.”


For example, if you tell me that the title of your book is Get Up, You Lazy Ass, I might not find that as meaningful or helpful when I’m really looking for, How to Get Things Done and Make Things Happen.

III. Be Interesting

It’s no secret that exciting titles attract an audience.  We know that sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll sell, and that provocative titles promote interest and discussion.  Remember that there are ways to be a little TOO interesting.  Barbara Vey blogging at Beyond the Book on Publishers Weekly mentions certain words in titles that are a definite turn off.

IV. Be Unique

My partner works in database technology, and this morning we had a chuckle over how many businesses go by the title, “Database Solutions.”  That name certainly is brief, specific, and adequately interesting to at least tell the customer what they’re buying, but it is in no way unique or new.  Unique titles are a true challenge; there is no secret formula.  My advice on finding a unique title is consistent with my life philosophy: be unique, be true to yourself.  Do I have to quote Hamlet?

V. Address the Purpose

A well-synthesized title manages to be brief, specific, interesting, and unique while addressing the purpose of the work.  Examples like An Inconvenient Truth and A Modest Proposal [Note: this is the truncated title] each speak in different ways to the purpose of the respective work.  With my poem Singing of the Spheres, the title may address the first couple criteria, but it falls far short of unique, and fails to address the bigger purpose of my poem: to talk about fate, change, and hope.  Use your title to engage your audience with your purpose.

If you are stuck trying to title your work, try this approach: grab yourself a big piece of paper and a pen or two.  Start at number V and work your way backward: What is the purpose of your piece?  What’s new and different about your art?  What’s exciting about your art?  What specifically is your work about?  Now summarize it for me… in one to 10 words.


11 Responses to What’s in a title?

  1. Anita Marie says:

    When I write a story I always start with the character’s name and then the story title. It helps me stay focused. I have changed the Title of stories, but the lead character’s name doesn’t change.

    anita marie.

  2. JLB says:

    Anita Marie, I was thinking about your stories when I wrote this post. I think that character names in titles can be really effective. There are some works of fiction that just beg to go by character name (like Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery), and I think they are made stronger by it.

    Now that I think about it, other art forms work well with character names. Works that invoke mythology are certainly aided with the use of a character’s name in the title, as with John William Waterhouse’s work. And of course, let us not forget the most excellent Tom Sawyer by Rush!

  3. Jamie Ford says:

    Thanks for the mention! I’m still struggling…argh…but these are great steps, which I will put to use.

  4. Anita Marie says:

    Hey Jamie- I was actually at the Panama today and thought of your book!

    Hi Jade…that’s me, the Science Project Gal 😉
    I have to say, I do go a bit exotic on my character’s names but that’s me- after awhile
    I give everybody- including my pets nicknames, so those wild names are really a sign of affection on my part. For me, I need to ‘like’ my characters, how else will I be able to live with them and get their stories?

    What’s funny is that people are always convinced that the characters in my stories are ALL based on real people. So that affection comes through in some unexpected ways.


  5. daisies says:

    i have such a problem with titles for anything i write and for any of my photography ~ i pretty much just grab onto the first thing that floats into my head … not the best strategy i suspect …

    thanks for this ~ will have to give it more thought ….

    : )

  6. Bernita says:

    I wrote a story about a time-travelling, butt-kicking character with the surname Tempest – title: Tempest in Time.
    My blog post title which receives the most hits ( from very disappointed searchers) is unfortunately named “Medieval Porn.”I doubt if any of them came back. In fact, I’m inclined to hope they don’t. One can be too cute with titles.

  7. Angelique says:

    For me, the titles I create are usually for shorter articles and blog posts, not novels or stories. That being said, it can still be terribly difficult to come up with something that grabs readers’ attentions.

    What really disappoints me, though, is when I come up with what I (humbly) believe is a terrific title… then find out that an editor changed it to something different. I understand that’s an editor’s role, of course, but it can be hard to “let go” of a title on which I’ve worked for a while.


    Happy Fourth! (Stop by my site for a wacky question!)


  8. JLB says:

    Jamie, best of luck with renaming The Panama Hotel – you’ll find the right title!

    AM, I feel that one of the qualities of your writing are your unique character names. I positvely yawn at common, boring names. I keep a list going of all kinds of strange and intersting names I encounter or dream up for future character use.

    Daisies, greetings! I face the same challenge with naming a lot of my poetry – some of it comes with titles in my mind, but many of my poems are written without a specific title to anchor them – it can be a real challenge for me to coax a name out of the piece that I feel reflects its purpose.

    Bernita, a friend of mine had a similar problem with folks googling a rather raunchy phrase and landing on her blog – don’t ask me where it came from, or why people were looking for it, but it certainly makes one wonder…

    Angelique, I know how tough it can be to let go of a portion of your work – often times the phrases and words that I most love in a poem are the first to be singled out by others in critique sessions. Sometimes I think that’s an indication of what doesn’t work… and other times, I think perhaps it’s an indication of what’s actually getting the reader’s attention!

  9. This is really interesting and useful. Titles are the things I find most difficult. One of the reasons I love haiku is that they don’t need titles!

  10. JLB says:

    Craft Green Poet, I’m glad to know that you found my ideas helpful. If only there were a magic title wand! I sometimes struggle with the desire to leave much of my poetry untitled… I realize that titles add another layer of strength, but sometimes I think I just prefer to leave them as little unnamed orphans and hope they find their way!

  11. […] is trying to title a work.  Swing over to SpyScribbler’s blog and give her a hand with naming her work using Thursday […]

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