Research is easy, the saying goes; writing is hard. And the hardest writing of all, many authors groan, is title-writing. Sum up 75,000 words in a single enticing word or phrase? Impossible!
Unless, that is, you think not like an author but like a copywriter.
For book-length authors, writing is about sentence-crafting, paragraph-building, and pacing. For advertising and marketing copywriters, writing is about the syllable, word, and slogan — all directed toward making a sale.
I’ve worked on both sides of the divide. I’ve named companies and products and developed advertising slogans. And I’ve written, ghostwritten, or edited some 15 books. I’ve also consulted on nonfiction book titles.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Successful book titles follow trends and formulas that change just like other fashions.
- Successful writers often (but not always) develop and stick to a title style.
- If you’re working with a traditional publisher, count on relinquishing control over your title to your editor or the marketing department. They have more experience than you with what’s likely to sell.
- If you’re self-publishing, try many different title approaches, be rigorous and ruthless, and don’t be afraid to test your options with savvy acquaintances or with online tools such as Pickfu or Lulu’s Titlescorer.
- Unlike the content of books, titles can’t be copyrighted. A duplicated title may not be your first choice, but it isn’t the end of the world, either.
Like any other kind of writing, title-writing takes practice. Here are ten of the most popular title styles and trends— and techniques to help you find your best match.
1. The power of one.
One-word titles like Cod and Paper (both by Mark Kurlansky), Blink and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), Me (Elton John, and also Katharine Hepburn), Educated (Tara Westover), and Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari) signal the confidence of a subject-matter expert or the ego of a celebrity at home in center stage. Single words can shock, as with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. They can amuse, like Steve Wozniak’s iWoz. Sometimes they tease and startle: Author Mary Roach has created a franchise out of books titled Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Gulp, and Grunt (about cadavers, the paranormal, sex research, digestion, and soldiers, respectively). Most one-word titles are supported by a long subtitles that serve as mini-introductions: Blowout, Rachel Maddow’s 2019 book, carries the subtitle Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. Biographies of very famous people often have single-word titles: Edison (Thomas), Robin (Williams), Paul (apostle).
An important subcategory of the one-word formula is the single word preceded by a definite article, signifying “one and only”: The Heavens (Sandra Newman), The Testaments (Margaret Atwood), The Idiot (Elif Batuman, with a nod to Fyodor Dostoevsky), The Grammarians (Cathleen Schine), and many John Grisham titles, from The Firm to The Guardians.
Try this: Only one word — possibly preceded by “A” or “The” — will fit on your beautifully illustrated cover. Which word will it be?
These two-word titles have some of the impact of one-word titles, shaded and burnished by an apt adjective. Take a look at Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era. Or Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. Or Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s account of the Theranos debacle. Or Bad Money, Kevin Phillips’s recent book about “the global crsis of global capitalism.” Fans of bestselling mystery writer Carl Hiaasen recognize his adult-novel titles by their adjective-noun structure: Nature Girl, Bad Monkey, Skinny Dip, and so on.
Try this: Take the one word you chose for the first exercise and add a modifier to it. No good? Try other modifiers. Or opt for a subcategory of Adjective-Noun: add “The” to your title, as in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Right Stuff, or The Tipping Point.
Chalk it up to global gloom, realism, minimalism, or shock value: Titles with negative words like nothing and nobody, or negative prefixes and suffixes like un- and -less, are filling the best-seller lists. A negative title can communicate defiance, foreboding, self-deprecation, or a void that will be filled between the covers. Some examples: Nothing to See Here (Kevin Wilson), No Stopping Us Now (Gail Collins), Unbelievable (Katy Tur), Scrappy Little Nobody (Anna Kendrick), Unpresidented (Martha Brockenbrough), Unsinkable (Debbie Reynolds), Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand), Say Nothing (Patrick Radden Keefe), No Ashes in the Fire (Darnell L. Moore), Not a Good Day to Die (Sean Naylor), Harmless (Meli Raine), Less (Andrew Sean Greer), and Nothing Ventured (forthcoming from Jeffrey Archer).
Try this: What is your book not about? What is the missing element that your narrative will furnish?
4. Full sentence.
The full-sentence title is the stylistic opposite of the one-word title: a thesis statement instead of a tag. This formula was an outlier in the 20th century — Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress stand out — but it’s wholly mainstream now. Think of these titles, all published since 2003: André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and its sequel, the terser but still complete Find Me; Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, Emily Nussbaum’s I Like to Watch, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Mary McCarthy’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, and Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (the 2004 nonfiction book adapted into Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film The Irishman). See more examples here.
Try this: Write down five of your favorite sentences from your manuscript. Will any of them work as a title? Now try creating new sentences using verbs with immediate impact: declarative (She Speaks), interrogative (Will She Speak?), imperative (Make Her Speak), and negative (Don’t Let Her Speak). Keep all your “failed” experiments and try altering or combining them.
5. X and Y (and sometimes Z).
The copulative title links two (or three) words, usually nouns, with “and”; the effect can be to compare, oppose, or underscore. Three popular books on grammar — Usage and Abusage (Eric Partridge), Spunk & Bite (Arthur Plotnik), and Sin and Syntax (Constance Hale), illustrate use this formula to excellent effect. Barbara Ehrenreich used verbs in the titles of her bestselling Bait and Switch (2005) and Nickel and Dimed (2001). Blood and Thunder is so popular a variation that at least a dozen authors have used it over the years.
With the three-part title, we enter the realm of what Roy Peter Clark calls “encompassing magic” in his book Writing Tools (itself a nice example of an Adjective-Noun title). A series of three nouns “provides a sense of the whole,” Clark writes; it allows us to triangulate the entire scope of a book’s thesis. Consider Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, whose subtitle declares it to be about nothing less than “the fates of human societies.” Sometimes a triplet title builds to a climax, or a punchline: Love, Loss, and What I Wore (Ilene Beckerman), Power, Faith, and Fantasy (Michael Oren), Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity (John Stossel). For a twist, eliminate the “ands”: Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert); Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver).
Try this: Identify the two or three things your book is about, and link those things with commas or “and.”
6. The X of Y.
One of the most popular and durable of all title formulas, “The X of Y” is almost endlessly adaptable. On the one hand, there’s Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and its many imitators: The Elements of Design, The Elements of Art, The Elements of Programming Interviews. On the other, Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Or Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Or that all-time bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking. Sometimes an “X of Y” title is hiding amid the adjectives: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Marie Kondo).
A time-tested variation: Let X = “End.” I counted more than 50 “The End of …” titles on Amazon, from The End of Alzheimer’s (Dale E. Bredesen, MD) to The End of White Christian America (Robert P. Jones) and The End of the F*ing World (Charles Forsman). Substitute “Age” for “End” and you have another successful formula: Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (which also fits the “Negativity” formula), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and so on down to Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Try this: Make two columns of nouns that bear some relevance to your subject matter. Let X equal a noun from one column and Y equal a noun or noun phrase from the other column. Switch nouns, and columns, until you’ve solved your title problem. Are you predicting doom? Let X equal “end.” Are you writing with grand historical sweep? Let X equal “age.”
7. Girls and boys.
Blame it, if you will, on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the 2005 thriller by Stieg Larsson that became an international bestseller (and two movies, on in Swedish, one in English). Since then, there’s been a spate of “Girl” and “Girls” titles, with no end in sight. (We like books with female protagonists, but only if they don’t exhibit full maturity.) Rachel Hollis is a one-woman “Girl” industry; the author of the novels Party Girl, Sweet Girl, and Smart Girl, successfully turned to nonfiction with Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing. But she has some distance to go before she catches up with the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, whose new novel is titled Girl (which is also, of course, a one-word title), and whose previous works include The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl (later reissued as The Girl with Green Eyes), Girls in Their Married Bliss, and Country Girl, a memoir. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) were bestselling psychological thrillers; The Radium Girls (Kate Moore), Code Girls (Liza Mundy), Fly Girls (P. O’Connell Pearson), and Jell-O Girls (Allie Rowbottom) are recent nonfiction entries. City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) applies the formula to “a delicious novel of glamour, sex, and adventure,” as the publisher puts it.
“Boy” titles are slowly catching up to the girls: The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown), The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne), and, onscreen, The Boys, Our Boys, Good Boys, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Try this: Is your protagonist a woman? Is your subject a group of women? Place a suitable adjective in front of “girl” or “girls.” You can try a similar exercise with a male protagonist and “boy,” but be sure boyishness is part of the appeal.
Communicate activity and direction with a verb as your title’s first word. An imperative verb brings the reader into the action — Bury the Chains (Adam Hochschild), Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill); the gerund form gives you the cachet of omniscience — Dreaming in Code (Scott Rosenberg), Finding Narnia (Caroline McAlister), Stumbling on Happiness (Daniel Gilbert). The verb doesn’t even have to be a dynamic one: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal has, as of this writing, spent five years on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
Try this: What are you, or your protagonist, doing in your manuscript? Locate the verb, add -ing if you like, and add an object: an adjective (“mortal”) or a preposition and a noun (“on happiness”).
Numerical titles are especially effective for business advice (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and inspiration (90 Minutes in Heaven). Over in the mystery aisle, Janet Evanovich started her Stephanie Plum series with One for the Money and is now up to Twisted Twenty-Six. Numbers suggest precision, accuracy, countdowns, and to-do lists: Are any of those qualities relevant to your story?
Try this: Roll a die. Write a title incorporating the number you get. No luck? Roll again.
A standard news story begins by answering five Ws and one H: who, what when, where, why, and how. Increasingly, authors and publishers are putting that technique into titles, lending books an air of immediacy and authenticity. Recent examples include Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens), What the Eyes Don’t See (Mona Hanna-Attisha), Why We Dream (Alice Robb), When You Are Engulfed in Flames (David Sedaris), and Who We Are and How We Got Here (David Reich). There’s a thriving sub-category of “What We Talk About When We Talk About [X]” titles, beginning with Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and continuing through Anne Frank (Nathan Englander), Books (Leah Price), God (Rob Bell), and Rape (Sohaila Abdulali). And then there’s Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
And don’t overlook the enduring appeal of “how to” in a book title, even if your book is not strictly speaking an advice manual. Consider How to Build a Girl, a novel by Caitlin Moran; How to Be Single: A Novel, by Liz Tuccillo; and Thomas Rockwell’s kids’ classic How to Eat Fried Worms. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, now in its fifth edition, has dominated the how-to bestseller lists for more than 30 years.
Try this: Go down the Journalism 101 list: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Pick one; write a title. Repeat as needed.
Still stumped? I offer mini-consultations over the phone. Call me!