Worldbuilding: top tips for tantalising titles

In this age of web-publishing, discovery is everything, And one way to help skew the calculation is with the right title.

Titles are the ultimate advertising slogan. They are the icing on the cake of the world the author is trying to build – summing up their creation in a few words. Problem is, titles have to do a lot of contradictory things. All at once they have to be:

1. Short and snappy – you have one or two words, maybe with a qualifying phrase if the book’s non-fiction.

2. Inspirational – the title has to get the reader’s imagination going – usually by promising the emotional response they’ll get from reading the book.

3. Descriptive – the title also has to say what the book is about. This is especially true of non-fiction.

4. Original – This may sound obvious, but it pays to check, and even publishers can fall into the trap. It happened to me – a publisher imposed a title which, it turned out, was identical to a competing book on the same subject. In New Zealand law, a title cannot be ‘copyrighted’, but it’s a bit naff to match someone else’s.

5. Distinctive – at least in its intended genre.

So how do you get those elusive few words? The best place to start is with your logline. Uh –you do have a logline…don’t you? Think about your intended audience. This may be an agent, a publisher, or the eventual readership. The final title may actually vary depending on who you’re targeting. Write down a lot of words and variations – look at them. Ponder.

Some may spring out. Remember, you can change that title to suit as your work evolves, too. And keep revising it right up to submission point – or the moment when you self-publish. That’s nothing new – F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, oscillated between a whole lot of possible titles for his The Great Gatsby (1925). He kept doing it even after the publishers were working on the book.

For writers with a publisher contract, title is often a moot point. It’s still important to create a catchy slogan to sell the book to the publisher – but they may or may not use it. Most contracts have a working title, but there’s also a clause giving final decision on title to the publishers.

Often this is quite a good thing. Publishers will usually develop a title based on what their marketing departments think works best. And they have a very good feel for that. Sometimes it can be quite subtle – Harry Potter and the Philosophers’ Stone was retitled Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone for the US market, for instance.

How do you concoct your titles? Do you find words that inspire? Is it tortuous or easy – I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

14 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: top tips for tantalising titles

  1. Hi – my advice would be to not force it. Sometimes the title might be immediately obvious, other times it may not be. Sure spend some time brainstorming but if nothing jumps out then give the project a working title and wait for the winning idea to come to you (usually at some ungodly hour when you least expect it!). That’s my experience in television anyway – but I’m sure it must be similar in the publishing world.

    I think you are right on the money, short and snappy seems to win through. Also the other thing I’ve noticed is that many professional publishers will go with a simple no-nonsense title where amatuer self-publishers seem to be more likely to “try and be clever” with their title.


    1. I have to confess that I managed to get a whole lot of bad puns and oxymorons past my publishers a decade or so ago “Desert Duel”, “Italian Odyssey” and “Pacific War” specifically…


  2. My title is based on how I felt. I have given the book the same title, at least at the moment – if I manage to score a publisher that publisher may totally change or impose.

    Does my title fit your criteria?



    1. Darn it, it posted when I didn’t want it to.

      1. I have three words, so fail, but I have a qualifying phrase as it is non-fiction
      2. Hmmmmmmm – not sure – I’ve now lived with the three words for so long I can no longer assess
      3. Ditto above, sadly – I am not sure if it does say what the book is about
      4. I think I get this one right!!!! At least Google says so, so far
      5. I think it is distinctive, but I’m not sure.

      That you so very much!!! You are going to have me tossing and turning for weeks about this damn title now.


      Oh well, I have a way to go yet, still draft 2 to finish, so I can think about it some more…..


      1. Three words are good, too – what’s important is capturing the reader. Dan Brown did it with four – “The Of Vinci Code” (Italian deliberatekly translated here).


  3. I had a working title for the crime novel I’m writing. I started the novel 6 years ago and in the meantime a best selling author has used the same title. Like you say. Here in the UK you cannot copyright a title, but I don’t want to use it now. Back to the drawing board,


    1. It’s a pain when that happens. The other one is when somebody writes a book on the subject you’rte writing on – which has happened to me more than once, with contracted books.


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