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What’s in a Title?

2015 March 24

[Note: this piece was first published in the March/April 2015 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

At first glance, you might think creating the title for an article, book, video or blog post is a simple thing: just describe what your piece is about in as few words as possible. However, when you consider the role of a title in the promotion of your piece, some further thought is called for.

Now it’s true that writers often don’t have control over what the final title of a piece will be (unless you’re publishing your own material). The publisher/editor has the last word. Then why spend much time on a title when chances are the publisher is going to change it anyway?

Titles are all about marketing, convincing someone to buy what you have for sale. Just like a reader, your publisher will determine from your title whether your story is worth a look among the many stories coming “over the transom.” Publishers also don’t have a lot of time, and if you picked a good title, they just might go with it. As well, if a magazine publisher really likes your title, he just might put it on the front cover, further increasing your piece’s exposure. So, deciding what title is best is worth the investment in time.

What Should a Title Do?
English-language scholars studying such things conclude a title should do four things if it’s going to be effective. It should:
1. Catch the interest of the reader;
2. Provide a hint of what the piece is about;
3. Echo the tone of the piece—e.g., serious, humorous, a how-to; and
4. Contain key words that make the piece easy to find in an Internet search.

The Hook
We’ve all heard the old saw about hooking your reader in the first sentence or paragraph of a story, or chances are he or she will move on to the next piece. But how do you ensure he will read that first paragraph? The title tells a reader whether the first paragraph is worth a look.

Content and Audience
Knowing your audience is fundamental to any good writing. That is especially true for titles. Canoeists will be looking for different titles than hunters or anglers. If your story is about fishing for walleye, for example, make sure you tell your audience upfront in the title, e.g., “Walleye Tips” or “The Five Rules of Walleye Fishing.” “A Day on Claymore Reservoir” might attract someone interested in boating or canoeing but not necessarily a walleye angler. Similarly, “Backpacking to Fortress Lake” might attract hikers to your piece but not necessarily trout anglers or fly fishers, even though that is mostly what your piece is about.

Slant or Tone
Titles like “The Five Rules of Walleye Fishing” or “Backpacking Primer” sets a tone for your piece that says “serious subject.” However, a title like “Trolling on Ice” or “Last Angler Standing” sets a less serious tone, and might hint at a little humor in your piece. So, a reader not really interested in a serious how-to, might just take a look at “Last Angler Standing” expecting some humor or a good story. Conversely, someone looking for some tips to catch more walleye might by-pass “Last Angler Standing.”

Key Words
The Internet is the chief way people find information these days. If you want interested readers to find your piece, you have to cater to search engines. Even if your piece is in a print magazine or newspaper, chances are good its title will be listed on the publication’s website and subject to an Internet search. Many print magazines and newspapers also post their print content on their websites; and depending on when the rights to a story revert back to you, you might wish to publish them again on your personal blog or website. Search engines look for key words in the title and content of websites. However, there is a hierarchy of what key words will take precedence in a search. The title is at the top of that hierarchy. So, you should be thinking about what key words should be in your title. For example, a piece on hiking the Skyline Trail should have that name in the title. Similarly, a piece on moose hunting should include at least “moose” in the title. Obviously, the title cannot hold many key words, but it should hold the most important.

Size
Not too long ago, I saw an article in a popular outdoor magazine criticizing a government program to control wolves in aid of preserving threatened caribou. There was a lot of important information in the article that people concerned with the issue should understand. The only problem was the title was 14 words long, and I fear many people didn’t read the article because their eyes kept moving when they saw the title. The author was a biologist whom I assume had some experience reading and writing scientific journal articles. Such articles often have long titles but they are written for a narrow audience of fellow biologists who will indeed take the time to read the titles. Not so with a popular magazine where a long title can be the death knell of an article being read. People without a vested interest in a subject are not going to take the time to read a title more than a few words long. It’s just human nature, especially in these times of instant communication and short attentions spans.

Then how long should a title be? There are no hard rules but 10 words are generally accepted as the upper limit, the shorter the better.

So, let’s see. A title should be short, hook certain readers, hint at the content and tone, and contain key words. Easy, huh? Actually, few titles will satisfy all those conditions. Indeed, some of the best titles might seek to break those rules or indeed attract controversy. For example, a piece on the pros and cons of catch-and-release fishing might attract more readers if the title read “Banning Catch and Release.”

One article I wrote I titled “Death in the Woods.” Now, such a title could have related to a host of possible subjects; but it was about an unusual winter of deer deaths in Alberta. There was nothing about deer or winter in the title, but I knew “death” would get people curious. My publisher liked the title and featured it on the cover of the magazine. Again, it’s all about marketing.

Working Title
Many writers don’t consider their titles until they are well into the writing and trust inspiration to come up with a title somewhere down the road. For myself, I need some sort of title to get my writing started. It doesn’t have to be a good title, just something that mentions the subject matter and allows me to get some ideas down before I refine them into something understandable. Such preliminary titles are called “working titles.” They are used as placeholders while you wait for your inspiration (or the publisher) to provide a better title.

If you have what you think is a good title before you finish writing your piece, write it down but don’t just accept it after you finished writing. When the writing and rewriting are done and you’re ready to submit it for publication, now is the time to give a really serious look at the title. Something you wrote at the end, or when you finally read the piece as a whole, might inspire a better idea.

Title Tips
So your working title is not great and you’re stuck for a better one. How do you come up with a good title? There are a lot of suggestions on the Internet but perhaps one of the best is Richard Leahy’s “Twenty Titles for the Writer”. The following is an abbreviated summary of his list of title-writing exercises:

* Look for a short sentence in your piece that could serve as a title.
* Write a title that’s a question beginning with Who, What, When, How, Where or Why.
* Now try a question starting with Is (Are), Do (Does) or Will.
* Look for a description of some object in your piece, something the reader can imagine; try it as a title.
* Write a title beginning with an –ing verb, like “Hiking for Health.”
* Write a title beginning with “On,” like “On Nighttime Photography.”
* Write a one-word title, the most obvious word possible.
* Now write a two-word title, followed by three-word, four-word and five-word titles.
* Think of a familiar title of a book, song or movie that might fit your piece.
You should now have a list of possible titles. Go through them and select the ones that work the best. Take some and twist them a bit, or combine them, or double them, e.g., Hiking for Health: A Digital Assist.” By the time you’ve completed this exercise, you should have some pretty good candidates for a title.

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