January 19, 2007

What Does a Title Perform?

What does it do, sitting there on its own like a little crown prince of your continent of writing?

The title offers a first impression to readers. Like it or not, it may tip the balance between your work being read or not, and it might form part of what is graded within a writing course.

You must make your title work as hard as all the words in your piece; harder in fact, for the title is a door for the reader to open, or a little window through which they peer at the interior, an intrigue making them question whether they should enter or take part. A lazy or imprecise title can damn an entire book.

This applies to poems, stories, novels and creative nonfiction. Spend a great deal of conscious time on your titles, and produce many maquettes of it: several versions and variations that you can trial on your fellow writers in your workshops, or your tutors.

Use a working title to begin with, even if you dispense with it later, since evasions like Untitled, Story or Poem carry no charge. You might borrow a phrase from a well-known literary work, but make sure there is a precise resonance between the phrase and your own work; or go through your own piece and locate a phrase that either summarizes it or captures its spirit.

It may be that one of the character’s names, the setting, or the time, contains that spirit too, as might your theme, or some over-riding idea, or trick of structure.

Titles require a reader’s eye, and many titles come to their authors a long time after composing, when writers can become a reader of themselves again.

Choose wisely and, if you do not have that leisure, at least choose precisely.

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