Over the past few years, I’ve participated and had my work critiqued in countless writing workshops, each one varying in both content and usefulness. After all, there’s only so much that university students, most of them amateur or beginning writers, can comment on in half an hour. Yet, if there’s one thing that’s been constant in every workshop I’ve attended, it’s this: when the time comes to comment on the workshopped piece’s title, everyone goes silent. Or, if they do speak up, it’s just to give a non-specific “I liked the title” or “I didn’t like the title.”
No one knows how to write a good title, it seems. We know when a title is good, but not what makes it good, or how to take those qualities and use them in their own work. And this isn’t just a university problem; every writer struggles with this. Anyone here who’s published a story or poem or song or play can speak to this.
The past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about titles a lot. And although I don’t claim to be the best at titling stuff myself—hell, I struggled with the title to this blog—I think that I’ve come up with three key rules that the majority of good titles share.
In this blog, I’ll share those rules, and give a few examples of titles that I love that abide by them.
Starting from the top…
1. The title should be related to the piece.
This is the most obvious and basic one. Your title should bear some relation to the content of your work. Whether that’s using the name of the MacGuffin (The Maltese Falcon), the setting (The Office), or the main character (Harry Potter)—it’s up to you.
2. The title should be meaningful.
It’s hard to explain what I mean here in a few words, so let me offer some examples instead.
Let’s look at Lord of the Rings. That’s a pretty good title. It’s related to the story, obviously, since it’s referring to Sauron. And it’s meaningful, since Sauron is the main antagonist, and the creator of the iconic One Ring that the story revolves around. Now consider if, instead, Tolkien had decided to title the series Tom Bombadil. He’s a minor character in the books, which means that the title would still be related. Yet, since he is so comparatively unimportant, all the significance of the title is lost. It’s not meaningful.
Any author here could title their poem The, and it would be related to the poem, since every author uses that word (assuming you’re not writing an homage to Gadsby). But that word alone has no meaning, carries no real weight within the poem. It doesn’t work as a title for the piece as a whole.
It’s also a bonus if a title is able to resonate with meaning even to someone who hasn’t read the work. Consider Reese Roper’s 2014 poem, “On Day Number Six.” Without even knowing what the poem entails, his title invites a whole host of thoughts. It demands comparison to the Book of Genesis, and its opening, in which God forms the universe bit by bit, day by day. It carries the implication that this poem is not bringing us to the beginning of Roper’s story, but to some point along the path—six days in, to be specific.
The best titles carry meaning and significance on a number of levels.
3. The title should act as a hook.
This is the one that authors forget about/ignore the most, and it’s to their detriment. While the inherent purpose of a title is, in its most basic sense, to be the “name” or identifier of your work, the best titles actively attract readers. Titles do this in much the same way a traditional first-line hook does; they provoke interest and wonder, paint conflict, create a discrepancy, even shock the reader. The meaning and significance I wrote about in the last rule can go a long way towards hooking a reader, too.
It helps to think of your title like this: in many ways, your title is the actual first line to your work. It’s likely to be the first thing the audience reads, and is likely to sit above your work. In both formatting and execution, it comes before the first line of the work. So if we’re crafting hooks with the idea in mind that we need to grab the reader from the start, why not apply that same logic to our titles, the real start?
This builds into a larger point about the importance of what quantum physicist/”intense literary analyst” James Fox calls your art’s “metadata.” Metadata, as the name might imply, is info about your work—in other words, your title, your cover art, your synopses/blurbs, your genre tags, etc. Even your name is a piece of metadata, albeit one that’s harder to manipulate (I think of the poem Amanda submitted a few weeks ago, in which the placement of her name on the page acted as part of the poem). It really can’t be overstated how much of an effect this plays on both the tone of your art and the way it’s received.
Or, as author Ryan Czerwiec simply says: “If you saw your story title as part of a long list of them, is it one you’d want to check out?”
The best titles aren’t just there for show—they pull their weight by engaging readers just as much as the piece itself.
Some supplemental rules, suggested by friends: 4. If you can make a pun, DO IT (from Jeremy Jackson) 5. If you use "untitled," remember that it's not signifying a lack of title, you're NAMING YOUR PIECE "Untitled" (from Chrissy Montelli) 6. When in doubt "Deez Nuts" will suffice (from Chrissy Montelli) 7. The title doesn't count toward a word [count], so you can cheat and have it convey information the story doesn't (from Ryan Czerwiec)
Did that make sense? Of course, it’s obviously not foolproof. There’s a great level of subjectivity that goes into all three of those rules (a title that acts as a hook to one person may not hook in another, for example). In addition, the three rules cross over often; a title that has great meaning may inherently be an interesting hook, for instance. And there are smaller rules not mentioned here that I think are implied—for example, your title should be original.
But with my three major rules defined, let’s go through some examples of what are, in my mind, good titles.
I had the inspiration to write this blog while watching videos produced by Button Poetry, a group that records and publicizes the best slam poetry and poets from all across the US. One strength that slam poets often have over other writers is this: they’re fantastic at titling their pieces! Slam poets understand that every bit of your poem needs to pull its weight, and that a strong title is the first building block to a strong piece.
Here are two recent examples of really great titles in poetry.
“I Ask What ‘Circumcision’ Means in a Full Sunday School Class” by Raych Jackson
This is the specific title that I always quote when talking about this topic.
1. It’s related. Within the context of the poem, Jackson’s titular question is one of the the many “sex questions” she wants to ask the worshippers in her church.
2. It’s meaningful. Thematically, Jackson’s poem is about the cultural and theological intersections between religion and sexuality. And even without knowing that, her title summons those same ideas, making a clear juxtaposition between the “suggestiveness” of circumcision and the “purity” of a Sunday School classroom.
3. Let’s be honest: no matter how serious the ideas presented in the title are, it’s also quite humorous. The thought of a girl shouting that in a Sunday School class is a funny one. You want to see what the class’ reaction will be. Jackson manages to capture that humor while also presenting a complex idea about what religion teaches—or doesn’t teach—children about sex. In my eyes, that counts as a good hook.
“The Difference Between a Girlfriend and a Woman” by T. Miller
1. It’s related—probably more directly related than any title mentioned before, as the entire piece is written in the format of:
A. A girlfriend is/will…
B. A woman is/will…
2. It’s meaningful, since that different is the entire conceit of the piece. Additionally, it summons thoughts about the way we think of femininity when it relates to romance.
3. The title’s hook comes from the question it creates in the reader’s head: “There’s a difference between a girlfriend and a woman?” That’s a question that wants to be answered, which prompts to reader/listener to continue on. The previously mentioned thoughts about femininity don’t hurt either.
Look at the list of books that Lytton sent out to us. I’ve marked the titles that I think are the best, without knowing anything about them (click to expand).
And that’s all I got. Now that we’ve been through them, I’m betting that these rules sound pretty obvious. Yet, even if they are obvious, I think it’s helpful to have them spelled out somewhere, so instead of trying to remember a nebulous idea of what makes a good title, we have actual criteria to help us guide our title-crafting. Think of these less as rules, perhaps, and more like helpful prompts, or reminders.
I hope that these make sense, and are helpful to someone. Let me know what you think, especially if I’m wrong.