Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Top-Secret Guide to Creating Winning Titles!

If you're a writer, you might have heard that the title you give your work in progress doesn't matter. "Whatever title you come up with," people say, "the publishing house will choose something different."

While that may often be true, the title you put on your manuscript does matter.

I've heard editors say they sometimes throw out the first two chapters of a manuscript they're editing, because the story doesn't really start until chapter three. Does that mean it's okay to start your manuscript with two boring chapters? No. Chances are that--outside of a one-on-one critique with an editor at a writers' conference or workshop--the editor will never get to chapter three if the editor is bored by chapter one. In fact, most editors won't read past a boring first page. Sure this is something the editor can fix, but isn't it easier for the editor to just slip it into that SASE with a rejection slip?

Your job as a writer is to make it easier for the editor to accept your manuscript, rather than reject it. So start with a compelling first chapter--and a compelling first page! Polish that manuscript until it shines! And, for goodness sakes, give it a title that makes a person can't wait to start reading it!

We live in an age of soundbites and Twitter tweets. We're used to having our attention grabbed in just a few well chosen words. And that is what your title should be: a few well chosen words that grab the reader's attention, like someone grabbing you by the collar and staring you in the face.

So what are the secrets to writing a great title? Here are a few.

  • Choose a familiar phrase. Playwright Neil Simon said that using familiar phrases, like All American Girl and The Odd Couple as the titles of his plays made people say, "I've heard of that. Must be a play people are talking about." One of my most successful manuscripts so far has the title Ride of Your Life, and I know the title has played a big part in its success. (Of course, these should be familiar phrases, and not familiar titles. You don't want the editor to say, "I've read that before.") You can also use a play on words based on a familiar phrase for the same result, for example, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starfish or Apple of His Sigh.

  • Keep it short. Brevity is the soul of wit.

  • Use words that excite. (Shh . . . I've got a secret. We all know what exciting words are. Secret. Passion. Escape. Wonder. Sin. Exciting words make us want to read further. Now you know. And, by the way, one of my works-in-progress is titled The Secret Life of Mira Levy. Please don't tell anyone. It's a secret.)

  • Promise the reader something the reader wants. How to Write a Novel in 30 Days. Writing the Breakout Novel. If you want to do these things, what choice do you have but to read these books?

  • Create sensory images in the reader's mind. The Golden Compass. The Sorcerer's Stone. Can you see them in your mind's eye? Can you feel them in your hand? Do you want to? If your title creates an image of something the reader will want to reach into your story and pull out, you've got a good title.

  • Use a pleasureable action word. Scientists have discovered that action words touch the same parts of our brains as preforming these actions. When we read Dances with Wolves a part of our brains is actually dancing. Pretty cool, huh? Imagine the things your title could be making a part of the reader's brain do, things the reader would enjoy doing so much that he or she would feel compelled to read your story. Make pleasureable action words work for you.

  • Make the reader wonder. Up the Down Staircase. What is a down staircase? Who is going up it and why? The reader will have to open the book to find the answers to these questions.

Use these tips individually or combined to help you create irresistable titles that will hook the reader and compel him or her to start reading your manuscript. After that, your story is on its own.



  1. Great advice Shevi! For someone who has trouble coming up with clever titles this was most helpful.

  2. Very good article filled with great advice.