Best Title for your Manuscript
by Bruce L. Cook
Wouldn’t you think the story’s title would be the easiest part? Wrong! Many writers agonize over the best title to use, and seldom feel satisfied with the title they finally choose. So here are some guidelines.
First, create the title last. The “working title,” which you use during creation, states what you planned to do in the story. The “final title,” which lasts forever, is what you actually did.
Second, the title should be short and catchy. It tells the reader what the story is about, and should appeal to the reader’s curiosity. For example, “Walking to School” is short, but “Bad Onions” appeals more to the reader’s curiosity.
Third, the title should relate to the story’s content, and even foretell the conflict. For example, “Walking to School” may explain a story’s setting, but not let us know that our protagonist is about to confront an angry veggie farmer in North Carolina. Heed this rule. I have encountered manuscripts with clever titles but which completely fail to tell the reader what it is about. Such a violation is especially serious in nonfiction.
We are dealing with readers here. We select a title for the reader, and even (hopefully) for readers in future generations. We do not select titles to tell the world how clever we are.
Think of the reader as a busy person who was forced to browse a bookshelf because the barrista is still steaming some coffee, and this reader will glance at your title for a scant one second among fifty titles on a dusty book rack. If the reader likes Irish Setters, and if your title evokes that image – gotcha! He or she buys the book along with the coffee.
Please do not think of the reader as someone who grasps your book admiringly, browses the pages to see why you selected the title “Red,” and sits down with the book on the spot. Readers are busy, scanning critters with no mercy when it comes to titles.
Grasp the reader’s personal interests, title-tease them into chapter one, and you’ll have a reader friend for life. No “bad onions” allowed!
The Writer's Critical Sense (continued)
In a public performance, a musician might receive criticism, but more often the criticism is internal. The performer needs no help in knowing whether it's time to try out for “American idol.”
For the writer, internal criticism is usually absent at first. A teacher will make corrections, but cannot be expected to rewrite everything. However, at some point, the writer needs to build an internal monitor, a critical sense that offers an over-the-shoulder watch on the writing.
Meanwhile, the writer faces several distractions. The writer might view the finished work in published form and then conclude that no further refinement is needed. Also, the writer's friends and family might offer praise, giving the author false hopes, for example saying, “This should be published in a book. Why don't they publish it?”
Further, no matter how well the writer develops writing skills, disappointment abounds in the marketplace. Publishers seldom consider a new writer’s work. A prospective employer who truly needs to hire workers with high writing skills simply takes writing skills for granted and judges the applicant on the basis of what might be called “HR factors”. Also, a supervisor or family member might react negatively when the writer tries to improve on their writings. These experiences threaten the writer's sense of self worth.
Ultimately, writing skill is developed through individual determination and perseverance. It is a lonely pursuit, driven by a quest for perfection. If the writer can get past the tedious “nuts and bolts” of grammatical correctness, the holy grail begins to appear in the distance. For the writer, this holy grail comes when the writer can pour strong feelings onto paper or a screen, and when the reader's heart throbs in response to the exact emotions the writer sought to share.
Then, like the musician, the writer will know when it's time for the big leagues.
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