Giving titles to one’s creative works can be as stressful as naming a child. I typically spend way too much time and effort trying to encapsulate all the intricacies of a project’s mission in an elegant and clever combination of words that are perfect mix of memorable, self-explanatory, and intriguing. I hate it so much, I usually end up just doing the reverse process: creating projects around clever titles.
But inevitably I will have a project that needs a title. Like the creative works themselves, there are no reliable methods or rules for making a great title. However, great titles have similar characteristics even if they look dissimilar.
Note that in this post, I will be focusing on assessing titles based their potential to be popular and not on their artistic merit (a very different, more subjective topic), although they are not mutually exclusive. In other words, I will be looking at what types of titles will make your work more likely to be shared.
Prerequisites For A Successful Title
There are certain things you cannot ignore when thinking about a title, especially when you want your work to be commercially successful. These characteristics have to do with how easily the title can be passed from person to person:
- If you hear it, you can spell it
- If you read it, you can say it
- If you read or hear it, you will remember it
- If you remember it, you can find it
In order for an idea to spread, it needs to be easily communicated from person to person, regardless of medium. The first two points are obvious—your title needs to be able to seamlessly pass between mouths, ears, and eyes. The third point is important since one should be able to bring up your title in any random conversation without fumbling through their smartphone. Lastly, if you do happen to remember a title, you should be able to find it easily through traditional means like a search engine. There’s a lot of factors to the last point, but this typically means it can’t be too generic or ambiguous where a search engine will return too many unrelated results.
Qualities Of A Successful Title
The first four points above will give an audience the mechanisms to discover and share your title. The next things to consider are what would get someone’s attention and what would motivate them to share. I believe a successful title falls into one or more of these categories. For simplicity and consistency, all my examples will be of book titles, although they can translate well to film, music album, or blog titles.
- It is intriguing to me. I may not know what the content is from the title, but it intrigues me enough to find out more. This strategy tends to function well for works of fiction. E.g. Where The Wild Things Are, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Something Wicked This Way Comes.
- I know what’s inside. The content is obvious in the title. This tends to work well for biographies, memoirs, and historical or science non-fiction. E.g. A Brief History of Time, Fast Food Nation, or Guns, Germs, and Steel. Or in fiction, such titles tend to refer to the main character, subject, or theme: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland , A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Women.
- It is relevant to me. The title alludes to a personal need by making a promise, opinion, or personal jab. This tends to work well for technical or reference books. E.g. How to Win Friends & Influence People, What Color Is Your Parachute?, or The Beauty Myth.
- I feel cool saying and explaining it. The title is so cool that I really enjoy saying it. The title also cleverly plays well with the content, so I also have fun explaining it. This is relevant to both fiction and non-fiction. E.g. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Strategies For Title Generation
I have not yet established a reliable method for generating the perfect title, but here are some strategies that have helped in the past.
- Don’t. Most of the time, you can just do the work or take a walk, and the title will come naturally.
- Quotes. Take quotes from your own work, notes, or from the works that were inspirations or primary sources of your work.
- Thesaurus. If you have specific concepts you want to work into your title, you can use a thesaurus for generating word combinations. Rhyming dictionaries can also be useful if you like puns in titles.
- Website Domain Search. Similar to above, this is useful for generating word combinations. For example, put a word into Lean Domain Search or Panabee. You may also get a website domain in the process!
- Break Current Thinking Patterns. Like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, find ways of thinking about a title indirectly. For example, choose a random word in the dictionary and try to associate it with your title.
- Pitch. Try to sell the idea to as many people as possible. Take notice of what combination of words make them understand and get excited about your idea.
- Keep A List. I like to keep a list of cool title ideas that don’t have a project yet. Whenever I have a new project, I look through the list of titles to see if any is relevant or can be adapted to fit. Also can be used in combination with #5.
At the end of the day, a title should be the best title for your specific work, which takes priority over any preconceived set of rules for what makes a good title. There are always exceptions to every rule (think: Ubik, The Trial, Loving, The Assistant, On The Road, or Money.) And if your work is good enough, it will change how an audience perceives its title.