Book titles: cardio for an out-of-practice headline writer

Writing a title offers one of many opportunities for editors to write creatively -- and subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny they offer to authors. Photo by William Hoiles via Wikimedia Commons.

Writing a title offers an opportunity for editors to write creatively — and subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny they offer to authors. Photo by William Hoiles via Wikimedia Commons.

I used to love writing headlines. I would agonize over individual word choices — particularly if the story was great. I loved playing with vivid metaphors and internal rhyme, rolling words around on my tongue and studying how they looked in WYSIWYG. Sunday 1A headlines brought the greatest opportunities for creativity, as well as the most nervous tension over scrutiny by the slot editor and newsroom bigwigs.

Well, I haven’t written a good headline in years. I’ve had other fish to fry. The not-ready-for-prime-time version of what I’ve been up to since I last won a headline-writing award:

  • PR skills. Embroidering grim news, playing nice with others and learning TV lingo (with the occasional dreaded standup).
  • Transactional writing. How to say “click here, dummy!” without saying “click here, dummy!”
  • SEO headlines. Brusquely functional and far less poetic than traditional headlines.
  • Project and people management. Try to avoid being hated, get hated anyway and try to ignore the fact that you’re hated.

So now I’m seven chapters in on a nine-chapter book, and I’ve schedule a brainstorming session with the author and the lead designer. How can I help craft a title that’s brief, elegant, compelling — and pleasing to the guys who are shelling out big bucks for this book?

Some resources I’ve reviewed:

Learn Top 10 Book Title Tips. I can’t ignore the crappy SEO headline on this article. The advice that follows isn’t much better. Title-writing comes off as a PR exercise only. It also suggests that a title can help an author focus his or her writing. That’s a strikeout, to me. I believe the title should organically emerge during or even after the drafting process. Until someone convinces me otherwise.

How to Title Your Book. This one’s a bit better. Though there’s still a focus on marketability, the author suggests extensive research and brainstorming — knowing your audience, genre and vocabulary. There’s a rhetorical-analysis bent here that I like.

How to Create the Perfect Title for Your Book. Overpromising much? “Perfect” headline aside, I like No. 3: “Why is your favorite movie titled the way it is? Take ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ for example. The title came from the story the heroine tells the villain, but it also refers to the killing, the silencing, of innocents.” I love the literary oomph that comes with choosing a title directly from a moment of high tension within a narrative.

How to Write a Great Book Title. A cliche-busting list from a surprising source. It reads a bit like an English-class handout, but I’ll take it.

What do you think, fair readers? What are your favorite book titles, and why? If you’ve written headlines or book titles, what were your favorite sources of creative inspiration? And how do you effectively balance creativity and client satisfaction?



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