"Just use any title. It's only a working title. The editor will change it anyway."
How many times have we read or made similar comments ourselves? Unfortunately, too many freelance writers fail to recognize the role the title plays in the success, or failure, of an article's acceptance.
Perhaps the only part of your email query an editor will read is what's written in your subject line. That should include the word "query" followed by the title. And that is why the title needs to grab the editor's attention, not scream, "old news, boring, inappropriate" or even "this writer doesn't know what he's doing".
So the first and perhaps the most important function a title will have is catching the editor's eye and piquing his curiosity, at least long enough for him to open your email and read your query. But let's be realistic. If you use the hottest words du jour simply to get the editor's attention, you're violating, not building, his trust in you. The moment the editor reads your title, he forms an expectation about your article. This leads us to the second and third function of the title -- establishing the article's approach and content.
There are many approaches to writing an article. Below are a few examples of titles and the approaches they foreshadow, or at least the approaches the editor will expect based on the titles alone.
Regardless of the approach you plan to use in your article, your title should convey that approach. If you state "top ten" in your title, then you must deliver the top ten items or reasons in your article. Use this opportunity to build the editor's trust and confidence in your writing and your ability to deliver what you promise.
Describing the article's content is the most straightforward function of your title. If you list dogs in your title, then the editor knows the article is about dogs. Just remember to make your title as specific as possible. Instead of the "The Top Ten Shampoos for Your Pet", write "The Top Ten Shampoos for Your Dog", unless the article focuses on shampoos that can be used for more than one species.
Now that you understand the role the title plays, you face the question of how to create an attention-grabbing title. Assuming you already have your article idea, outline or even a written article in hand, follow these steps for creating your eye-catching title:
A hook is the unusual, the out of place, the extraordinary -- anything that catches a person's eye. To create the hook, consider these methods:
Find what is unusual about your article, and you will find your hook. Or better yet, use contrasting words to create that hook. Regardless of the method you use, make your title stand out from the competition.
By using the four steps above, you have fine-tuned your list from fifteen to maybe five. You have what you believe are eye-catching titles that are in line with the publication you're targeting. Only one title is perfect for your article, but which one? To find out, you need to assess the message each title delivers.
When I was writing my query to pitch this article, I came up with the following titles by brainstorming off one key word ("title").
Once I reviewed titles of published articles on Writing-World.com, I found numbers 5, 8, 9, 10 and 12 were most similar in style or approach to the ones I had reviewed. But each title delivered a different message.
"Titles That Sell" implied a list of sure-fire titles, but I needed a title that reflected the process of creating and choosing the best title. That brought me to "Choosing Titles That Sell". Closer, but I wanted to help my reader create his titles, not choose from a pre-existing list. This isn't really a dos and don't article, either, so I passed on "The Dos and Don'ts of Titles". The scope of this article was broader, encompassing the explanation of what a title is, or rather, the function it serves in pitching a proposal. As for "Why Some Titles Grab An Editor's Attention and Others Don't", this title reflects a comparison approach as opposed to the overview approach I had planned to use.
Now keep in mind that the process of choosing the best title has nothing to do with whether that title will ultimately appear with your article. That may change at the editor's discretion. Your goal is to create a title that piques your editor's interest while accurately conveying your article's content and approach.
As it turns out, the editor for this article never changed the title. But even if she had, that would have been okay. My original title did the job I had intended -- it grabbed the editor's attention and helped get this article published.