Thursday, September 16

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, September 16, 2010 15 comments
Dear Editor-on-call:

What should I look for when choosing a title for a work?


(aka Lana at Lana Phillips's blog)

= = = =

Dear Untitled:

In a word? Flavor. Your working title (always think of it as such, because publishers frequently retitle works) should hint at the reading experience your book will provide.

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, er, your genre and approach. Look at titles in the section where you believe your book would be shelved, especially ones that take an approach similar to yours (in terms of tone and pace and level of seriousness). What naming conventions do you notice? One evocative noun? Verb phrases? Soft, shivery alliteration? Obscure literary references? Zany mash-ups? Treat that convention like a poetic form and challenge yourself to brainstorm a dozen possibilities that reflect your content but fit the form.

Once you've done that, run your favorites past LOTS of people--those who've seen your manuscript and those who haven't. Especially get the opinion of folks in your target audience. Tell them your logline, or your one paragraph summary, and ask which potential title sounds like it matches best.

Some opinions will be more useful than others. If votes seem split, go with your gut.

What do you think, readers? How did you go about choosing a working title? What are some of your favorite book titles that express flavor well?

Ask me an editing question and you could win a too, oh too cool prize! Click HERE for details.


  1. Hi Laurel -

    I've noticed short titles grab my attention more than longer ones. With that in mind, I've kept my own choices to between two and three words.

    I recently finished Alton Gansky's book, "The Incumbent." Another title that grabbed me Cathy Marie Hake's, "Bittersweet."

    Susan :)

  2. I can't start writing a MS until I have a title. I don't know why. I'll spend weeks trying to come up with something and usually it sucks, but at least it's there.

    I like really distinct and quirky titles such as GOING BOVINE. You're not likely to forget that one.

  3. I don't like two words for a title. I am so indecisive when it comes to titles!!

  4. Susan: Short titles does seem to be a current trend in some genres, but not all. I think the Lemony Snickett books for kids "A Series of Unfortunate Events" captures very, very well the flavor of the writing and approach to storytelling. That same title would totally flop for an adult thriller, however.

    Jade: Try out the look in the bookstore method--it might help you devise a title quicker. Something I notice about Bray's title that makes it catchy is the assonance (repeated vowel sound); using sound devices in your title can be effective.

    Victoria: I can be, too. Starting with comparison titles can help a lot, because it's a way of working with audience expectation.

  5. One of my favourite titles is "A Cure for Death By Lightning." I do like short titles, but the one mentioned also works well. For my own working titles theme and symbolism dictate; however, they do change. I love it, as a reader, when I see the title intertwined within a description or part of dialogue of a story.

  6. Flavor. I like that, and I would never have thought to put it that way. It's right on the mark.

    I like to think about the theme or a central conflict point. Sometimes I use Wordle on my MS and it steers me toward a natural title.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. I think humorous books tend to have longer titles and more serious/thrillers have the one word/two word titles like The Bodyfinder. I write down a bunch of different titles playing off theme and plot and characters. And I ask my cpartners for their opinion too.

  8. Genre seems to be key. As you mention, what works for kids -- even middle grade (MG) books -- may flop for a YA novel.

    That said, I've recently switched the title of my MG manuscript from a 5 word description to 1 word, because I see this trend of action/adventure books leaning towards single-word titles with strong imagery.

  9. My working title is always SO different from the title I finally bestow upon my work. It capture the essence in a nutshell. =)

  10. I really struggle with titles. You give some great suggestions, though. Thank you!

  11. I struggle as well choosing titles. I have yet to check out similar books but think I will do that with this one. Thank you!

  12. Great post! But funny thing, sometimes I come up with a title and then write the story.

  13. These are great tips for finding a title. I'm going to do some research of titles of books in my genre now. Thanks!

  14. Thanks Laurel. This was very helpful (also love the Wm Carlos Wm reference!)

  15. Yes yes! Great idea, Laurel! Thanks for steering me here!