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
“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.