Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Carefully Crafting Headlines and Barfing Up Titles

with 5 comments

There’s a distinct difference between writing headlines for advertising or marketing copy and writing titles for fiction. Here is that difference:

Writing headlines is an interesting, challenging process where I get to try different techniques
to craft an engaging line to elicit a specific response.

Writing titles sucks.

Oh, I know they’re both in my job description. As a freelance copywriter, I often write multiple headlines in a day. (Here’s an old post on what it is a copywriter really does, just in case you’ve forgotten.) And as a fiction writer, every piece I write needs a title.

So why the big difference? Here are two reasons:

Headlines and titles are developed differently

The way I get titles for essays, stories or novels is very different from the way I create headlines. I generally create headlines through a process—it’s an effort of working out a problem to a good solution.

A project management tool called WhoDoes with a clever, catching headline and subheads that address the audience’s concerns.

Let’s take a for-instance: If I’m writing a promotional postcard for a client, I think about what the postcard is selling, the benefits to the customer, the specific goal of the postcard, what the customer’s background is, what language they use … the list goes on.

With all this information in mind, it’s a matter of asking myself “What’s the best way to say what I want these people to hear?” and then working out the answer. It’s a mixture of knowing what’s worked in the past, what’s appropriate for this instance, and a lot of writing and revisions to develop the right tone, verbiage, and message that will be a grabbing headline.

Headlines are problems that I can find a really good solution to if I work at it hard enough.

Titles, especially for fiction, come out of the ether. I have yet to find a good process that consistently provides a fitting title—it just appears … eventually.

Oh, there could be whole essays on what people do do to try to find titles (hehe “do-do”), and I certainly work hard to try to make that breakthrough possible with lists of ideas and pounding the thesaurus and dictionary. But no matter how hard I work at crafting titles, it seems that getting any halfway decent title for a story or novel requires a moment of insight when suddenly, out of the blue, comes a word or phrase that just works. (Bonus read! For more on this, check out Jonah Lehrer’s essay “How To Be Creative.”)

Perhaps the difference in the flash-of-inspiration titles and the development of headlines is partly due to this:

Titles and headlines have different goals

Even though the ostensible goal of both headlines and titles is to get you to read whatever it’s hovering over, they’ve got very different purposes.

Headlines for news articles are often written to give you an overview of the information. You can read a news headline and get the gist without reading the whole 3 pages. You probably do this everyday online. Why read every link on CNN when you can browse the headlines?

Headlines for marketing purposes, such as direct sales letters, advertisements, and often blogs, are created to get you to read on and to make you aware of what your life is lacking (i.e. whatever the company’s offering). And not in a tricksy, snake-oil salesman kind of way (though that does happen and I’m sad for my profession when it does), but in a way that says:

We think you could benefit from what we offer. Want to learn more? If not, it’s cool.

A good advertising headline is the guy that comes up to you, shakes your hand and says, “Hi. I’d like to buy you a drink.” You know where this is going, and if you like the look of him, you go along to see what he has to say.

But a good tile for a novel or short story is the silent guy shooting you a mysterious look. You’re intrigued, and you’re not sure what lies beneath or how many layers of meaning that mysterious look might hold.

To see what I mean, take a look at the headline above, then these titles:

  • The Remains of the Day – How intriguing is this? Shouldn’t it be the Remainder? Oh, WAIT, maybe it has to do with death? Or time? Or …
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – Unusual word order that still makes sense? Sets a creepy tone? Alludes to another canonical work to add depth and reference? Check, check, check.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Alliteration makes this one just fun to say, and you can immediately feel here this book’s going. Or at least where you think it’s going.

Good titles for fiction do a lot of things. But the bottom line for today is they’re amorphous, multi-faceted, intriguing things that add to your experience of a book before, during, and after reading … at least the good ones are.

And perhaps because of this, titles are for me much more stressful and painful to work on than headlines. Though, they’re always exceptionally satisfying when I find a good one.

Written by Nathanael Green

January 7, 2013 at 9:02 am

5 Responses

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  1. That’s an interesting distinction, Nate. Although I’m not a copywriter, I do write ‘titles’ for my blog posts, but though every once in awhile I try to get creative about it, not always with spectacular success, usually I get bored with that and just make them simple and straightforward. Story titles are quite a different process, as you say. I don’t usually feel that I’ve completely nailed it, either. And yet the titles sometimes take on a life of their own. My most recent story is called ‘Scars’, and though that seems very unmysterious, I really couldn’t budge the title from being anything but that.


    January 9, 2013 at 3:17 pm

  2. Double posting to add this link, because another blogger I like and follow has also just posted about titles. She’s addressing it from a poet’s perspective. Her post is here


    January 17, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    • You’re always welcome to double post (or triple, quadruple …)! Thanks for that link—there are some interesting suggestions for finding titles there. I’ll have to think on those for the future.

      Nathanael Green

      January 18, 2013 at 11:57 am

      • Martha said that she was happy to learn of your post as well.


        January 19, 2013 at 12:00 am

  3. Immigration …the time to read or check out the content or sites we have linked to below the… gdgfeeeaccdd


    May 29, 2014 at 6:16 am

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