Writing the *#)%(*$% title

I hate titles. Always have. I’m a fantastic writer, but I suck at titles. When I was a journalist, editors would constantly change my titles, never satisfied with the one I toiled over. Sometimes I hit on a good one, but that’s a rarity. Similar to my chances of striking gold were I to pan at one of those touristy roadside panning places out West. Usually, my search for a good title is kind of like searching for the elusive Sheepsquatch or Abominable Snowperson. You suspect it’s out there, you’ve heard stories and legends and myths about writers being really good at titles, and you’re pretty sure you can figure it out. And yet, it eludes you. Just out of reach. Out of range of your night-vision goggles. Always taunting from the shadows.

Most recently, I wrote a long creative nonfiction piece about a particular idea and experience (purposefully being vague because I’m hoping the publishing gods smile upon me for this one), and my writing group was not only clutch for catching those tinkering revisions that we all must suffer, but one friend actually came up with the perfect title. And when she made that suggestion, it was like the proverbial seas parting and angels weeping. I heard bells. But perhaps that was just a developing migraine. I just stared at her and finally said, “How did you come up with that?! And why can’t I come up with a title like that?!” I was extremely thankful, of course, but also mind-boggled that some people are just THAT good with titles and others just aren’t. We’re all fellow writers, but only some of us have the title touch. (And thank heavens she’s in MY writing group!) 🙂

If you feel my pain because you have similar difficulties with titles, thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone. Also, I have some great advice about how to write a good title that I share with my students every semester. And you know the thing about great advice. . .it’s always best when passed on. So here goes:

Titles should be descriptive, compelling, and preferably brief to grab a reader’s attention and set the stage for the story or essay or poem to follow.

Titles provide focus and should be creatively evocative (suggestive) of the story’s/poem’s/essay’s content. Be imaginative and try not to rely on trite, obvious, or clichéd phrases.

Writing a good title is a bit of an art, so you may change it several times until you hit on one that sounds right!

Strive to:

  • be creative if the occasion allows for it. Play with words, find interesting quotes from the text, surprise your reader through tone, juxtaposition, analogy, etc.  In other words, get the reader’s attention and make him/her want to read your work!  Example: “The Art of the Nap,” “The Loneliness of the Military Historian,” or “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Elvis.”
  • be informative. The title should always provide a clear idea of what the story/poem/essay is about, what its main ideas are, and what it’s working with.  Example: “Digital Networks and Citizenship,” “The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical.”
  • join attention-getting and informative parts of your title with a : if necessary. This is for my academic writers. All hail the colon. Example: “The Invisible Discourse of the Law: Reflections on Legal Literacy and General Education.”
  • remember to change the title if the focus of your story/poem/essay changes.

And finally, write your title last.


Sample titles from  published essays (for inspiration!):

“She’s Nothing Like We Thought” (Molly McGlennon)

“The Spirit of Language” (Neil McKay)

“The Secret of Breathing” (Steve Elm)

“Being Brians” (Brian Doyle)

“Finders Keepers: The Story of Joey Coyle” (Mark Bowden)

“Going Native” (Francine Prose)

“Why I Ride” (Jana Richman)

“Of the Coming of John” (W.E.B. DuBois)

“How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (Zora Neale Hurston)

“Once More to the Lake” (E.B. White)

“No Name Woman” (Maxine Hong Kingston)

“Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” (Richard Rodriguez)

“Petrified” (John Lahr)

“Fathead’s Hard Times” (W.S. DiPiero)

“The Comfort Zone” (Jonathan Franzen)

“If Memory Doesn’t Serve” (Ian Frazier)

“Six Seconds” (Paula Speck)

“A Sudden Illness” (Laura Hillenbrand)

“My Yiddish” (Leonard Michael)

“Envy” (Kathryn Chetkovich)


Now go forth and be fruitful, title writers. And help your writing friends who suck at them. Consider it a valuable public service. Thank you.

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