8 Elements of a Great Title

Posted by: Kevin Tumlinson 1 month ago

Writers may have different goals for their careers, but most (if not all) write in the hopes of being read. Getting to that, though, means first attracting the reader.

There are almost countless ways to make your book as attractive and peacock plumage:

  • Target the right demographic
  • Market and promote your work
  • Make it a pleasure to read
  • Write a too-good-to-pass-by title

That last may seem obvious, but it carries a lot of weight. A good title can transform your book from a mediocre melody to a siren song readers can’t resist.

WHY DOES A GOOD TITLE MATTER?

There are lots of reasons you (hypothetically) might neglect to take the time to craft a good title.

  1. You poured your heart, your soul, and your energy into the pages of your book – You just don’t have anything left to give.
  2. You want to avoid your book turning into gimmicky click-bait – You’ve seen those titles online that beg to be clicked and then don’t deliver, and you don’t want your book in the company of those hooligans.
  3. You just don’t know how to come up with a good title – What does “good” even mean? It’s a little vague. And it feels like an awful lot of pressure. Your book is good; it will speak for itself.

So why should you take the time to come up with a good title?

800,000.

That’s the approximate number of new titles published worldwide every single year.

Does yours stand out?

After all, your title is your handshake. Your pickup line. Your very brief elevator pitch. It’s the first piece of marketing you create for promoting the book—the first thing anyone ever reads about your book.

It may be the only thing a reader knows about your book before they choose to read it. This is especially crucial for eBooks, because titles and covers may be all they see. Don’t count on anyone clicking to read the sample, if your book can’t entice them to get that far.

WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF A GREAT TITLE?

A great title sets up the story in shorthand, giving readers not only a taste of the style and tone of the book, but making the genre clear from the start. Alongside the cover image, the title makes up a sort of preview of the book, much like a movie poster sets up a film. You need drama, you need a connection to the audience, and you need to set up the story without trying to tell the story.

Check out these elements of a great title.

 

A GREAT TITLE…

… knows its audience and speaks to those people.

You know your book has an audience. Whether you wrote precisely for or to those people, or you’re figuring out who they are now that you’re finished writing, they exist.

80-year-old grandmothers.

20-somethings who never attended college.

Middle-aged men with children.

It’s hard—nigh impossible—to appeal to all these people.

And that’s fine! Actually, that’s expected!

Once you know who your audience is, don’t forget them. Your title, just like the text of your book, needs to speak to your audience in their language.

If you’ve written a children’s book about a sneaky cat, for instance, you wouldn’t opt for the title, A Stealthy Feline Enjoys Hide-and-Seek. You’re talking over the heads of your audience.

Instead, you might call it Sneaky Pete the Cat Plays Hide-and-Seek! Even if a child doesn’t know what “sneaky” means, they’re going to love that rhyme. And the exclamation point at the end encourages them—or whomever is reading to them—to read the title with enthusiasm.

… realizes your readers have emotions, and appeals to them.

Your readers are human!

We know, right?!?

We just mean to say, they have feelings. And you can use that fact to encourage them to pick up your book.

Besides the obvious—sentimentality, humor, happiness—here are a few other emotions your title could harness into sales:

  • Envy
  • Indignation
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • Confusion (This one is best for fiction)
  • Aspiration

A real-world example: ProBlogger published a book titled Transcending Travel: A Guide to Captivating Travel Photography. Not only does this title clearly tell readers what to expect when reading the book, it makes them feel something. According to Darren Rowse at ProBlogger,

“…in the sub-title we use ‘Stunning Landscape Photography’ rather than just ‘Landscape Photography.’ The addition of an adjective not only communicates our objective with the eBook to readers, but also gets them dreaming a little about the things that our eBook will help them to unlock.”

… is tried and tested.

At this point in your writing journey, you’ve probably jotted down a few title ideas that sound good to you.

Why not go the extra step, and test them? If you know your audience, you have access to potential readers who can give you a ‘yay,’ a ‘nay,’ or a ‘huh?’ when it comes to your title.

Do some A/B testing with your newsletter subscribers, on your social media channels, or with a select Street Team of honest fans. You can keep testing as simple as a choice between two or three titles, or ask subjects for specific feedback.

You can also use services such as PickFu.com to do polling and get instant feedback. This is a great way to test your title’s impact on potential readers.

Not sure you’re ready for public feedback? Reach out to family and friends you can trust to give honest opinions, and start from there.

A GREAT FICTION TITLE…

… Builds intrigue.

Everyone loves a little mystery. In your fiction titles, you can make your book more enticing if you introduce a bit of intrigue. Make your title mysterious, abstract, puzzling, even elusive, and you may pique the curiosity of your reader.

Notice, this fits with our earlier observation, that your title needs to be enticing to your specific audience. Readers of fiction have an appreciation for intriguing titles. The balance comes in making it mysterious without being too abstract. That, again, is why you should test your titles with a real audience.

Real-world examples to get your cogs turning:

  • Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
  • The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth

These titles alone are enough to get people to start reading because they’re mysterious, thought-provoking, and intriguing. They poke or wiggle their way into your brain, and the only way to satisfy yourself is to know what happens next.

Pro Tip: Make the thesaurus your friend. As author and YouTuber Kristen Martin points out, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is a much more intriguing title than Love Under the Trees.

… creates tension.

Building tension in a title is another long-held tradition of fiction authors. Don’t think a title is possibly long enough to create conflict? Consider:

  • No Country for Old Men
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It

Titles that build tension often do it by presenting opposites, like good and evil or light and dark. Or they use a scenario that’s scary or frustrating (See that third bullet point) that make a person have to read on to learn how things are resolved.

… uses even one word effectively

One-word titles have been used by masters for centuries. (Hamlet, anyone?) They’re a short, punchy way to pose a question in a reader’s mind: What could that mean?

You could choose one word that has a lot to do with the plot of your book—like the name of the main character’s cult or the heroine’s nickname. Just don’t give too much away—that makes the climax, well… anti-climactic.

Real-world examples:

  • Divergent
  • Inferno
  • Dracula

A GOOD NON-FICTION TITLE…

… tells your reader how it can help them.

A non-fiction title should be more like an elevator pitch for a position you really want than a pickup line at a bar: More clarity, less mystery.

That means your non-fiction title should clearly tell readers what they will get from the book. This is true whether you wrote about history or astronomy, and even truer for a self-help or guidebook.

Answer, “After reading my title, will my audience…

  • “Understand how this book benefits them?”
  • “Know what this book is about?”
  • “Want to take this journey with me?”

Pro Tip: One easy way to include more detail is with a subtitle. Here’s a great example: The Magic of Making Up: How to Get Your Ex Back. Before the subtitle, the author had a little fun with alliteration and allure. After the subtitle, it’s all business. Kind of like a mullet haircut.

The reader knows exactly what this book is promising them. If they need help getting their ex back, they’ll be buying.

… is not a mystery.

So we set up the whole idea of intrigue with fiction titles, but the same definitely does not apply to non-fiction. A non-fiction book with a purely intriguing or mysterious title isn’t likely to pick up an audience. That’s because non-fiction is about solving a problem, rather than providing pure entertainment. When we’re out to find an answer to our problem, we look for titles that promise to solve that problem.

Let’s say you write a book about content creators and the invaluable work they do for millions of companies. You have such admiration for the craft and the people who do it, that you title your book The Magic Makers.

It’s a beautiful title, but without context it’s going to be more likely to draw people interested in prestidigitation than the specific audience you’re writing for.

You can easily fix this, though, with a sub-title: The Magic Makers: An In-Depth Look at How Content Creators Can Save Your Business

Now you’re cooking with a petroleum based distillate!

Cryptic titles are tempting, but for non-fiction, they aren’t going to do the job. Make your title the first informative line of the book. Tell the reader what problem you’re solving, if they’ll buy and read along.

 

Regardless of the type of writing you’re publishing, determining a great title for your work is crucial enough that you should pause, breathe, and work it out before hitting publish. Remember, just because you may have written a work with one title in mind doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Before paying for cover design, before layout, before publishing and distribution, take a step back and consider the contents of your book. Choose a title that meets the expectation of your readers and, more importantly, entices them to dive in.