A Critical Piece for Every Writer

By Terry Whalin @terrywhalin

Last week I spoke with an author about her book. While she had written the manuscript, she didn't have a “working title.” Another time a writer refused to tell me her title because it was a “secret.” Both of these are extremes but it shows the variety of author responses in this critical area of titles. Whether you are writing a book, a magazine article or an online article, your title will draw readers in seconds. They will either be enticed to read it or move on to something else (not what you want). The words in your title are a critical piece for every writer.
As a book editor--for fiction and nonfiction, I've repeatedly seen the importance of titles to draw the reader to the book. Titles for the book often happen early in the path to publication or on the publisher’s production schedule. Most nonfiction books are contracted from a book proposal, so often the writer hasn’t completed their manuscript. Yet the title needs to be determined for the catalog and sales copy to be created and the cover to be designed.
Titles should be one to five words and draw the reader into your article (enticing). The word limit is particularly important for books because most books are spine out in the bookstore. Your title has to be readable and fit that spine (along with your last name).  A number of authors don't work hard on their titles because they believe their publisher will change them anyway. After writing more than 60 books for traditional publishers, I have a different perspective. If I create a terrific title for my book, I've seen it become the actual title for the book—even as it goes through the editorial process (different at every publishing house). My encouragement if for you to create a title along with a series of alternative titles for your book.
I've been involved in hours of title meetings where we have an entire white board filled with titles and are trying to select the right one for the book. What are we working with for this process? Often it's your original proposal. What have you provided the publishing house? Have you provided a single title or a title and a list of alternative titles? As the author, you know your book better than anyone else--and have the greatest passion for the topic. Make sure that passion shows up in your title and alternative titles. It will be significant. When I'm in a title meeting with my colleagues there is one critical person who is not in the room (the author).  In your pitch, I encourage you to seize your opportunity to give input with your title and alternative titles.
Publishers work hard at the title--but don't always get it right the first time--and some times they change it in the process. For example, years ago the nonfiction book from Frank Peretti was first released as The Wounded Spirit and the publisher changed the title to No More Bullies. This book has been repositioned in the market with the new title.
Titles can make or break a book or magazine piece. Draw the reader or make them pass on to the next possibility. Put lots of energy toward this detail. Your title might just be the tipping point which makes a difference whether your book idea or magazine article is published or whether it catches lots of attention.
Do you put effort into your titles? Let me know your insights in the comments below.


Whether you are writing a blog post, a magazine article or a book, there is a critical piece for every writer: the title. Get insights in this article from this prolific editor and author. (ClickToTweet)

W. Terry Whalin is an acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing. His work contact information is on the bottom of the second page (
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).  He has written for over 50 magazines and more than 60 books with traditional publishers. His latest book for writers is 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed. Get this book for only $10 + free shipping and over $200 in bonuses. 
One of Terry's most popular free ebooks is Straight Talk From the Editor, 18 Keys to a Rejection-Proof Submission. He lives in Colorado and has  190,000 twitter followers


Karen Cioffi said...

Terry, great information. Titles are like a magnet. It's what will attract a reader to your book or article. It's essential to make them as powerful as possible.

Terry Whalin said...


Thanks for the feedback. I love the magnet metaphor and agree with you. Most of us won't work hard enough on our titles.


Jams and Books said...

Excellent. Deciding on titles is a process!
I helped a 91 year old self publish, and she wanted a new cover and subtitle after many months. Her old cover-title will always be on Goodreads, though, along with the new one. Cyberspace is not forgiving of such changes.
Another author I read misspelled her one word title (true) and that cover-misspelling will always be online.
Amazon will replace covers but Goodreads will not — they just add the new one also.
Titles are of utmost importance, agree!

Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this comment and sharing some of your experiences with titles.


deborah lyn said...

Fantastic article Terry!
It is full of strategic advice, here are 2 that stand-out to me:
*"As the author, you know your book better than anyone else--and have the greatest passion for the topic. Make sure that passion shows up in your title..."
*"Titles can make or break a book or magazine piece. Draw the reader or make them pass on... Put lots of energy toward this detail."
Thanks from all writers!

Terry Whalin said...

Deborah Lyn,

Thank you for pointing out these two statements. I'm glad they were helpful.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Terry, one of the trick I've used with a title (and pitches!): I run them by an online writers' group (we used to call them list serves) for input. Both screenwriters and Aaron Shepherd's POD group are like sharks. They don't let go until they've helped you get something perfect. This is an example of why "keeping a title secret" is like shooting yourself in the food. No matter how good, a bunch of professionals is very likely to come up with creative ideas that you'll use as the title or in some other ways. Networking is just sooooo much fun!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Terry Whalin said...


I agree that titles should not be secret but tested and refined. Your idea of using an online group is terrific.

Thank you,


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