Improving Your Titles

What do Psycho, A Christmas Carol and American Idol have in common? 
Stumped?  It’s easy.  They’re all great titles – and huge numbers of viewers and readers know them.  Sad but true--more people know the title A Christmas Carol than know its author.   Yes, it’s a classic work, but it’s also a classic example of a great title. 

I’m allergic to business-oriented articles for writers, but I feel I must speak to my very talented Scribd colleagues.  Here’s why:  in years of doing market research, I’ve often been asked to test names and titles. I’ve seen that how powerful they can be, even more than a marquee star or “high-concept” theme.  Titles can build the audience – think Pulp Fiction -- or they can shrink it. 

I know what you’re thinking.  You say, oh, it’s only big companies who have the time and money to test something as vacuous as a title.  And I’m not writing for money, anyway.  Besides, isn’t it silly to measure success on something as flimsy as the number of reads?  Is that any metric of quality? 

Well, yes and no.  Of course, quality doesn’t rely on the number of reads.  Maybe you’re not commercially inclined.  But, why are you uploading in the first place?  If you don’t care about why reads your piece, why not just pass it around to your friends and family? 

Of course you care.  That is why you’re writing—you want to communicate. 

But let’s turn it around.  Sure, you want to find readers – but just as important, readers want to find you.  Readers are eager to find writers whom they love when they browse.  Readers—the ones who might love your writing – need an easy way to find you.  And whether you like it or not, a good title is the easiest link to them. 

So, let me offer some tips from the research world:

  1. Catch my attention. Online, readers are in a hurry to find content quickly. Online, your title must scream, not whisper. 

  2. Make it short.  When deciding between two equally good titles, choose the shorter one.  If you can shorten a three word title to two, great.  Take a clue from the TV world:  The Sopranos, Grey’s Anatomy, House— all short and sweet.   Scribd’s Ingrid Rick’s Hippie Boy is, to my mind, terrific in this respect. [Also:  don’t title stories with a character name, unless the name is itself funny or interesting.]

  3. Think about your target – men, women, mystery lovers, romance readers, etc.  Use words that signal to your target that this piece is for them.  If you’re writing a mystery, use words like crime, murder, code.  If your spirit is romantic, then it’s time for words like romance and moonlight.   

  4. Make it obvious.  Subtlety is great in a writer—but death in an online title.  The most obvious titles work the best.  A Christmas Carol is about—yes, Christmas.  And please, avoid literary allusions or quotes unless they are so famous or striking that they will draw readers. 

  5. Finally, write a description!  If you don’t care enough to write a phrase that persuades readers to pay attention, don’t be surprised when they skip your piece. 
Your Turn! 

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