Let’s Talk Titles

crownLet’s talk titles – not king, queen and my personal favourite, goddess – but the titles that alert readers to what is about to unfold before their eyes.

I’d like to start by telling you a bit about myself – and my experience with titles. I am a freelance journalist and have written hundreds, actually thousands, of articles for print and online publications across North America and beyond.

One of the things you soon learn as a freelance reporter is that editors write the titles of articles. This is not always the case, but it is usually the case.  There are a number of reasons for this, and we’ll discuss those. In a minute.

First, I’d like to share with you the options article writers have when it comes to titles.

One, you can come up with a title that you think reflects the article, is clever or straightforward or funny – whatever attribute you think will appeal to readers. If the editor likes it, they may use it. If they don’t, they will write their own. More often than not, they will write their own.

Years ago, I did an article on a trademark dispute involving use of the Bluenose, Nova Scotia’s famous schooner. My title went something like this: Ship disturbing trademark battle erupts in Nova Scotia. I thought that was very clever. My editor did not. Well, she may have, but the title she used ultimately went something like this: Nova Scotia businesses barred from using Bluenose name.  On the other hand, I wrote an article on champagne and called it “Liquid Bling.” My editor wrote to say she loved the title, and she used it.

It never hurts to include a suggested title.

And no one usually knows the story as well as the writer. But good titles take time to craft, and on many occasions the articles I submitted did not have a title. They had a descriptor: Profile of Donald Duck, Article on the pros and cons of ducks vaping, Conference report from Ducks Unlimited. I was leaving the work to the editor.

What editors are looking for in an article title.

1. Something that grabs the reader’s attention.

2. Something that describes what the article is about.

3. Something that is not longer that the first paragraph of the article itself.

4. Something that makes them want to read the article or shows them why they should.

Are you likely to get all that in one title?

Probably not. But that is what is behind the words that introduce an article. Often those words are more dramatic or more urgent or more intense or more gripping than the article itself. Indeed, most of the time someone objected to an article I wrote it was the title that set them off.

And I didn’t write it.

4 replies
  1. Saralyn
    Saralyn says:

    I taught journalism, and we spent a whole week on headlines.Now that I’m writing fiction, I find deciding on a book title to be one of the hardest parts of the entire process.

  2. Debra H. Goldstein
    Debra H. Goldstein says:

    I find coming up with titles extremely difficult. I’m not good at cutesy – which for cozies seems to often be a requirement – and my short stories often end up with titles that make me cringe (and it’s my fault because that’s how I titled the tale).

  3. Gay Yellen
    Gay Yellen says:

    When I was a magazine editor, I was often tasked with headline duty, especially on the cover. As I look back, some weren’t bad, and some were pretty mundane. It’s hard to be witty 24/7.

  4. Donnell Ann Bell
    Donnell Ann Bell says:

    Donalee, I’ve been where you are both in nonfiction and fiction. I’m often amazed at the headlines that make it into publication. I love the title “Liquid Bling” but am not sure I would correlate it with champagne. (I don’t get out much). 🙂

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