Monday, 17 May 2010

It's The Way I Title 'Em

Titles. They may be the first thing to appear at the top of your manuscript, but in my experience, they're best saved until last.

Titles are important. They're the first words to put their hands around your reader's neck and pull them into your feature or story. And remember ... that very first reader will be the editor. If your title doesn't grab their interest, why will they be encouraged to read on?

I was marking a couple of assignments yesterday, and students had analysed their target market and noted that the style for the titles in this publication was, "Snappy, a play on words, or a startling statement." Well, if that's what you discover from looking at your target market, then yours should be in the same style. Instead, I went on to read articles titled A Fun Day At The Beach. Don't get me wrong - for some magazines a title like that will be fine. But if you've seen that all the titles in the publication you are targeting have fun, snappy titles, then is A Fun Day At The Beach really the best title you can come up with?

The picture above is of an article I had in Holiday Cottages magazine about the literary festival at Hay on Wye on the Welsh Borders. For ten days at the end of May and the beginning of June, this small market town is swamped with literary folk and names known the world over. Titling the piece, Hay Fever, works on several levels. It's a nice play on words; it uses a phrase on many people's tongues (or should that be up their nose and in the eyes?) at this time of year. But it also conveys the atmosphere of the place. It tells readers where in the country the event is taking place (Hay on Wye), whilst also demonstrating the mood of the event. One definition of 'fever' is, a state of intense emotion or activity.

When considering titles, there are several tips and tricks you can use:

  1. Alliteration. Instead of having A Fun Day At The Beach, why not use alliteration, where the words all begin with the same letter, to produce a more interesting title? Fun Frinton-on-Sea Family Frolics
  2. Phrases, Sayings, Song Titles. Sometimes a song title, or a proverb (or part of a proverb) can make an excellent title. Look Before You Leap. Like A Bat Out Of Hell. A Stitch In Time.
  3. Practical 'Tell It As It Is'. For some magazines, a straightforward title is all that is required, so make sure that yours 'does what it says on the tin'. Ten Ways To Leave Your Lover.
  4. Quotes. Another reason for leaving the titling of your feature until the end, is because if you've interviewed somebody, sometimes a quote they've given you produces a really great title. Who Says You Need Wings To Fly?
  5. A Twist On A Phrase Or Saying. Play with words. Sometimes altering one word, or even just one letter, in a phrase or saying can produce an interesting twist. An article about grey squirrels taking over a red squirrel habitat here in the UK, was titled Judgment Drey (a drey is a squirrel's nest), so it was a nice play on words of the phrase 'Judgment Day'.
Don't worry though, if the editor chooses not to use your title. In some ways, it doesn't matter. When you get to this stage, your title has done it's job, because it attracted the editor's attention enough to get him or her to read your article and accept it. Sometimes editors come up with better titles (they are doing it all day), although sometimes you might not like the alternative. But if you notice one of your manuscripts has been retitled, just consider it for a moment. Is it better than yours? What can you learn from this?

Titles. They may be the first thing at the top of your manuscript, but sometimes it's best leaving the titling of your piece until the end.

Good luck.


  1. I gave up giving my Times Educational Supplement column a title because the editor always puts a different one in. I don't think it's that mine are always rubbish - he just seems to want to do it! Fine - less work for me!

  2. In my experience quite a lot of new writers don't appear keen on investing a bit of time in devising an appealing title. I think it's impatience, more than anything. The biggest mistake is naming the article after your subject rather than devising one which alludes to your theme. I've seen enough articles about Paris entitled 'Paris' to last me until Bastille Day...

    Fran - editors don't always choose titles. Quite often it's sub editors. Another point is that titles can get changed because the designer has laid out the text in such a way that a longer / shorter title is required. Some sub-editors consider titling their job exclusively, and that 'infringing' on that is intrusive and amateurish. This goes for the bigger papers and glossies, especially.

    I usually name mine, though, as it gives me a focus and, yes, it can help catch an editor's eye. I'm not convinced that they're especially important to the reader though, but may well be wrong.

    Good tips, Simon.


  3. NorthernTeacher19 May 2010 at 09:45

    When I did A Level English many moons ago (I think the exam board was AEB), we had to look at the differences in headlines, captions etc between the broadsheets and tabloids. I loved this. It gave me the excuse to read those papers that I wouldn't normally buy! The Independent always had fantastic headlines. I particularly remember one on Larkin but written in the style of a headstone to suit the article.

    Although I don't buy tabloids, when I was doing this A Level I did and I've always admired the writing style. On the face of it, they have a bad name for writing 'trash', but I believe it's quite an art to write in their often 'snappy' way.

    So, what am I saying? I recommend researching newspaper headlines and captions as an ongoing thing if you're going to have to come up with a title for something yourself!

  4. It's the title wot does it. I agree entirely, but it is so, so difficult to think of the right one.

    George Tregson Roberts