On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?


How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?


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Filed under Books, My novel, Publishing our book

12 Responses to On the tricky topic of titles

  1. Eileen

    A fabulous post Caroline. This is fascinating stuff. I love the titles you have chosen to illustrate your points and, for a change, I have read nearly all of them. And one of my favourites is Catch-22 – so clever. I particularly love the ones that got away – 1984 and Lord of the flies.
    I’d like to add some titles I like: To kill a mockingbird, The accidental tourist, Cold comfort farm, The monk who sold his Ferrari and The diary of a nobody. I am not sure that it is the titles that work so well now or that the title means so much as I love the content of the book. They have become intertwined in my head, or inextricably linked.

    • Caroline

      Yes Eileen you have mentioned such good titles. I sometimes think of good titles with nothing to go with them, but I’m not so good at titles for things I have written.

  2. I love thinking about titles, but for my blog I read a long time ago that the best thing for a litblog is to title with the author and title of the book being reviewed. I’d love to be more creative. Will be interested to hear what you have to say, though I suspect I have a pattern now that I will stick to.

    Your untitled poem example reminded me that this is quite a common idea in art, as in Untitled No. V. I sometimes feel quite threatened by these works because the title can be a hint, as you say, to meaning.

    Some titles can sound generic e.g. the film The Lives of Others. I loved that film but I regularly forget the title. And the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? I have one friend who always forgets it and calls it all sorts of things. On one occasion she called it Amazingly and Suddenly!

    • Caroline

      Thanks strangely-named Whispering Gums. I agree with you about book reviews. And my practice, without realy giving it much thought, has been to just use title and author for reviews. I suspect it is helpful for people searching in google or wherever. I’m not into SEO and all that promotion stuff, but I do keep an eye on such things.
      I like the Amazingly and Suddenly story. It reminds me of my mother, who has never been able to remember names very well. All her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are called ‘darling’. A good solution. She referred to Britten’s War Requiem as that Peace Mass, once. It’s logical.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Reading this, I’m wondering if there’s an additional problem with books of any type about ageing: using the word itself helpfully identifies what the book is about, yet there is still such a prejudice against anything to do with all the rage that it risks being rejected – or perhaps you haven’t found that? I’m wondering how the Saga brand came up with their name – it does suggest longevity but perhaps in a less stigmatised way, at least to my ears.
    Whispering Gums makes a good point about some clever titles being too easily forgotten in their early days, or too easily detached from the stories they tell (I know I’ve read and enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but couldn’t say without looking it up, what it’s about!)
    I’m pleased with the title of my novel, Sugar and Snails, but while it’s embedded within my brain people do still muddle it – and I’m always surprised that it doesn’t immediately seem to give away what the story is about (I worry that it’s far too obvious).

    • Caroline

      Interesting comments here, but I do need to point out that everyone, not just older people, is ageing. But we do tend to use it for older people. And even ‘older’ can be a euphamism for old.
      But yes, trying to find a different way of saying something about the book has been hard.
      And even your book I think of Sugar and Spice and all things ice, but I assume you intentionally muddled the old rhyme in a very clever way. When I’ve read it I’ll know better.
      Thanks for your comments as always, Anne.


  4. Sarah Hill

    This is a brilliant post, you wonderful woman! Really insightful, lots to think about, and beautifully articulated as always!

  5. Ruth F Hunt

    For novels/stories I have a system, where I take the theme eg isolation and then using an old fashioned dictionary of quotations look at the entries for this theme. From that I found a poem by Rumi, and then the title from a line from this poem: The Single Feather.
    I used the same system for my WIP and got another good title, though good is subjective, of course.

    • Caroline

      Sounds like a good system, Ruth. Thanks for sharing. You are so right that you need to isolate the theme as a starting point.

  6. Eileen

    My Dad used to call me – Maureen, Sheila, Eileen – I was his third and last child x

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