Creating the perfect title for a nonfiction piece is tough. In a few short words you’re supposed to convey the subject, approach, and audience — and be appealing. That’s a tall order. Honestly, I used to hate drafting a title but I’ve come to see it as an effective exercise.
Working and reworking a title at different stages of a project helps me nail down more than words for the cover. When I finally smile at a title I’ve crafted — and when that smile returns every time I dive in to revise — I know I’ve also got a handle on what my book is actually about.
Often though, even that title isn’t the final title. The editor, marketing team, others at the publishing house all have a say and sometimes one of them develops the final title.[Note: This discussion is relevant for trade books. For books in the education market, the title is typically assigned ahead of time.]
So, how do you develop the perfect title? Lots and lots of work — and play! Here are some exercises to help.
Read these titles from this month’s list, paying particular attention to their structure:
Birds, Bees, and Butterflies: Bringing Nature Into Your Yard and Garden
The Pollinator Victory Garden: Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening
Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies, and Other Pollinators
Summer’s Flight, Pollen’s Delight: Meet the Bees, Butterflies, Birds and other Creatures Who Keep Our World Green and Alive!
Pollinators: Animals Helping Plants Thrive
These titles use a traditional structure: a shorter title (indicating the subject matter), a colon, and a subtitle (fleshes out the topic or scope of the book). Check your shelves for titles that use this structure. Nonfiction writers are fortunate; we can use subtitles! Subtitles give us options. Providing additional clues through the title/subtitle combination can be a critical element in helping a book find the right readers.
What about titles that break from that traditional structure?
They may use questions:
Where Have all the Bees Gone? Pollinators in Crisis
Consider what the use of a question does for the title. Prompt the reader to think? Provide an air of uncertainty? This particular title also introduces a level
of anxiety and capitalizes on the tension inherent in the topic.
Know Your Pollinators: 40 Common Pollinating Insects including Bees, Wasps, Flower Flies, Butterflies, Moths, & Beetles, with Appearance, Behavior, & How to Attract Them to Your Garden
What does that do?
Or need no subtitle at all:
Turn this Book into a Beehive
Now, look for literary devices which help a title stand out.
- Alliteration, assonance, consonance like Astronaut Aquanaut: How Space Science and See Science Interact by Jennifer Swanson and Woodpecker Wham! by April Pulley Sayre
- A play on words like The Whole Story of the Doughnut by Pat Miller and I See Sea Food by Jenna Grodzicki
- Rhythm or rhyme like Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez
What other devices can you find in titles you love?
Try adding a literary device to one of the titles listed above.
The Power of Play!
Amazing titles can come from play. Play with the language, play with the concepts, play with what your reader might be thinking. Here are a few examples: You’re Invited to a Moth Ball by Loree Burns, Something Rotten: A Fresh look at Roadkill by Heather L Montgomery, Save the Crash-test Dummies by Jennifer Swanson
- Draft the most conservative title possible. Draft the most outrageous title possible. Which do you like best?
- Reverse the words in one of your draft titles.
- Combine opposites (over/under, fresh/rotten, etc)
- Swap out a common word with something that challenges readers just a bit.
Tricks and Tips
Like any other skill, developing a finely honed title requires practice. Here are a few more exercises to round out your workout:
- Listen to the words of friends, critique partners, strangers as they talk about your project or subject. Stockpile their words as fodder for your title.
- Revise one of your titles using each of the literary devices listed above.
- Jot down a title and develop a list of at least 10 synonyms for each word. Mix-and-match, paying attention to the rhythm of the words.
- At random, select five non-fiction books and use their titles as models for yours.
Many thanks to the members of the NF for NF Nonfiction Children’s Writers Facebook group who suggested titles for this post.
Heather L. Montgomery writes STEM books for kids. She’s had fun with her recent titles:
Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other (Bloomsbury 2020)
Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves (Lerner, 2019)
Bugs Don’t Hug: Six – Legged Parents and their Kids (Charlesbridge 2018)