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What Every Writer Needs to Know About Article Titles
by Julie K. Cohen

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"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.

Function of the Title: Catching the Editor's Eye

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.

The Approach

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.

  • "The top ten ways to grow an orchid" -- the editor expects to see a numbered list of the top ten ways to grow an orchid.

  • "How the evolution of irises parallels that of man" -- the editor expects to see the histories of both the iris and man being compared, over time.

  • "How to grow irises without light" -- the editor expects to see a step-by-step process typical of a how-to article.

  • "Expert advice on growing orchids" -- the editor expects to see at least one true expert referenced in the article.

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.

Creating Eye-Catching Titles

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:

  1. Brainstorm titles using only one to three keywords. Don't look at the magazine, paper or website you are targeting -- not yet. Just brainstorm.

  2. Next, review the titles from the publications you are targeting. Get a feel for the various approaches conveyed by those titles.

  3. Circle the titles on your list that are similar in approach to the published titles.

    You may still have a long list at this point, but that's fine. Choosing a title is often as much of a weeding-out process as a creative one. As long as the remaining titles are in line with the published ones, you're on the right path.

  4. Of the circled titles, eliminate the ones that don't have a hook (see below).

The Hook

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:

  • Use an Unusual Angle. The pet magazine editor who sees dozens of article proposals about which dog fence is best and why will likely notice this title, "The medical downside of invisible fences, to dog and owner." The author has found an unusual angle. The title "Are invisible fences harmful?" could be used for the same article, but it doesn't provide the same insight or generate the same excitement as the first title. If you have an unusual angle, use it.

  • Combine Contrasting Words. Focus on combining words that don't normally appear together. For example, how often do you read "Alligator caught in elevator", "Are conjoined triplets possible?", or "Three-legged horse wins race". The odder the combination of words, the more likely they will catch an editor's attention.

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.

Assessing the Message

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").

  1. What's In A Title?
  2. Choosing the Best Title: Just How Important A Title Can Be
  3. 10 Things you Can Tell From a Title
  4. Telling Titles
  5. Titles That Sell
  6. Killer Titles
  7. Eye-Catching Titles
  8. Choosing Titles that Sell
  9. The Dos and Don't of Titles
  10. Why Some Titles Grab An Editor's Attention and Others Don't
  11. What's In A Title? Everything
  12. What Every Writer Needs To Know About Titles
  13. The Difference Between Working and Final Titles
  14. Why "Working Titles" Are Dangerous
  15. Are We Too Cavalier About Choosing Titles?

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.

Targeting the Market

Deciding which title is best often depends on the targeted market. In my case, I ultimately chose "What Every Writer Needs to Know About Titles" because I wanted to give the editor a sense that this was an all-encompassing guide to titles. This was especially important because I reviewed the site I was targeting and didn't find any other articles on titles. If I had, I would have specialized in strategies or dos and don'ts -- particular aspects of the broader topic.

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.

Find Out More...

Choosing the Right Name for Your Story - John Floyd

Seduce Your Reader with the Perfect Title, by Anne Marble

Titles for Your Texts - Victoria Grossack

Titles Sell Books! by Judy Cullins

Copyright © 2005 Julie K. Cohen
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Julie K. Cohen is a freelance writer, author and puzzle creator. In her life prior to writing, she enjoyed doing website development and reviews for a major financial corporation. Currently, she is writing articles for magazines and picture and activity books for children. Visit her website at: http://www.juliekcohen.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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