When you think about all of the writing elements that need to come together to make a successful magazine story or article, it might seem as if the title is the least of your worries. After all, it’s only one little phrase that could be revised at any time during the writing process, or even changed completely by an acquiring editor who falls in love with the manuscript and comes up with a brilliant alternative.
In spite of the title’s short and often temporary nature, however, the title has an important job. It not only has to capture the reader’s attention, it has to make the reader want to read more, and give the reader a tantalizing taste of what’s coming next. Think of a title like a searchlight sweeping across the sky, or one of those inflatable tube men billowing in the breeze as you zoom down the road in your car. You can’t help but look. Searchlights, inflatable tube men, and titles are attention-getting junkies cut from the same cloth.
So, what’s the secret to coming up with titles that do all of the above? Here are my six tips for writing tantalizing titles:
Tip #1: Ask a Question
Instead of making a statement, turn your title into a question. Stating the title in the form of a question is an instant attention-getter. People love questions because they just might know the answer and this format gets them thinking right off the bat. Question titles are everywhere. Here are just a few examples from popular magazines that all pose a question: “A Cure for Loneliness?” “ADHD—Who Really Has it?” “Is Your Hairdo a Don’t?” (Oprah Magazine), “Sensors are Helping Drivers Now—Where are They Headed?” (Sensor Technology), “How Can you Tell the Dancer from the Dance?” (GQ British), and “Who Gets to Be American?” (Time Magazine.) The list is endless.
Tip #2: Share a Secret
Would you like to know a secret? Use “secret” in the title, and you’ll immediately get the reader’s attention. That’s because people love secrets. All kinds of secrets, from the secret ingredient in a carrot cake recipe, to the location of the secret staircase in a mysterious mansion. The Nancy Drew mystery series knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote books with titles such as The Secret of the Old Clock, The Secret of Red Gate Farm, and The Secret in the Old Attic. If you look at current magazine titles, you’re bound to find a not-so-secret stash of titles with “secret” in them too. “Styling Secrets of Designers” (Martha Stewart Living), and “12 Savvy Care Secrets for Kittens, Adults, & Seniors” (Catsters Magazine) are just a few of the many titles out there that know how to use the secret of secrets to draw readers in.
Tip #3: Numbers
If you want a tantalizing title, think numbers. While they might not seem as exciting as questions or secrets, they’re probably used in titles more than any other device to draw the reader into the story or article—especially articles. A quick survey of the magazines reveals all kinds of titles with numbers: “12 Savvy Care Secrets for Kittens, Adults & Seniors” (Catsters Magazine—This is the second time I’ve referenced this article because they used numbers and secrets in their title), “50+ Ideas for a Happy, Healthy Home” (Better Homes & Gardens), “125 Ways to Energize Your Life” (Martha Stewart Living), and “10-Minute Life Fixes” (Reader’s Digest). Numbers are everywhere. In fact, I used numbers in my title for this blog. Remember the six tips? Readers love numbers. They give readers something they can count on.
Tip #4: Familiar Phrases Used in a New Way
If you study titles, you’ll see that successful titles are often composed of familiar phrases used in a new way. For example, in Southern Living, they’ve got an article entitled, “The Soul of the South” that’s a twist on the familiar song, “Song of the South.” In Reader’s Digest, there’s an article entitled, “Romancing the Terrorist” that’s subtly referring to the popular movie, “Romancing the Stone,” and their article entitled, “What’s New Under the Sun?” connects with the familiar phrase that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” One great way of finding familiar phrases with article potential is to Google idioms based on specific words or ideas found in your manuscript. At the click of a mouse, you’ll come up with all sorts of options that just might be the ticket to a great title.
Tip #5: Alliteration
Whatever title you choose, it needs to read smoothly and sound pleasing to the ear. One way to do that is with alliteration, or repeating certain beginning sounds of words that appear close together. If you review the titles I’ve included in this blog, you’ll see several instances where the authors did just that: “Song of the South,” that repeats the “s” sound; “12 Savvy Care Secrets for Kittens, Adults & Seniors,” that used alliteration by repeating the “s” sound of savvy and secrets, and the “k” sounds of care and kittens; and “Is Your Hairdo a Don’t?” that repeats the “d” sound. Alliteration played a role in my blog title “Six Tips for Writing Tantalizing Titles” as well, where I repeated the “s” and “t” sounds.
Tip #6: Lift a Line from the Text
Lastly, when you’re searching for that tantalizing title, remember that some of the best titles come from the manuscript itself. If you’ve written the manuscript, and you’re still searching for the perfect title, read the text carefully. There’s often a hidden gem of a phrase just waiting to step into the all-important manuscript spotlight as the title that will capture a reader’s attention, make you want to read more, and give readers a tantalizing taste of what’s to come—just like the title of this blog.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. and 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by New York Times bestselling author/illustrator Matt Phelan, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, Mousequerade Ball, Chicken Lily, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Amazon bestseller Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. Awards for Lori’s books include NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for K-12, Smithsonian’s Notable Book for Children, IWLA Book of the Year Award, and Rhyme Revolution’s Best in Rhyme. Lori has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for 16 years and has been a contest judge.