Revisiting the question of titles

I recently joined a women’s writing network called Shewrites, and have been following a discussion on titles. People post their working titles, and the community reacts. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to get a lot of quick feedback. But on the other, it’s made me realize that we’re not all on the page when thinking about what makes a good title. So I wanted to raise the question here again.

There have been objections to titles put forth on the Shewrites list on the grounds that they don’t tell exactly what a book is about. It’s an objection I struggle with a lot, especially since I write non-fiction. But, as I look around my study and at some of my favorite books of non-fiction, here’s what I see:

The Year of Magical Thinking
Algerian White
Nox
Autobiography of Red

I, for one, like titles that hint rather than baldly declare what the book is about. I like titles that are evocative and a bit poetic. I like titles that reveal their meanings fully once you’re part-way through a text. But I may be in the minority in this respect.

I’m interested to hear what you think is important in a title. How much does a title have to tell you? How tolerant of the abstract are we when it comes to titles? What are your favorites, and why?

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2 Replies to “Revisiting the question of titles”

  1. When it comes to non-fiction titles, I like the ones that tell me exactly what the book is about but also suddenly make me curious about the subject. This is why I read the last non-fiction book I picked up (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) and am now reading my current book (“This is Your Brain on Music”) despite having another non-fiction book waiting for me (“Where Men Seek Glory”).

    I tend to skip non-fiction books, or at least delay reading them, when the title is a bit too vague, even if it’s poetic. This was the case for “Three Cups of Tea”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and for “Under the Banner of Heaven”.

    When it comes to fiction, anything goes. I’m just as happy with long titles (“Because I Have Loves and Hidden It”) as I am with short ones (“Property”). The thing that drives my choice of fiction is word of mouth recommendation, award status, best-seller’s list status, and a title that is evocative and poetic. Cover art sometimes plays into it, too.

  2. Sarah,
    I hope I can call on you for help once we get to title negotiations with the marketing department. I never thought that this would be the hardest part of publishing a book, but here I am the second time around, and it’s true AGAIN!

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