Tales of Title Writing by Victoria Lynn Smith

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either.

Submission guideline: No one- or two-word titles.

First time I’ve seen that one. But I’m a rookie.

The editors desire longer titles to capture the attention of readers. The two stories I want to submit have one- and two-word titles.

I stare at the computer screen trying to think of longer titles. Zip. I close my eyes trying to conjure up longer titles. Zero. I reread my stories, hoping for inspiration. Zilch.

I don’t feel rebellious enough to ignore the guideline. I like my one-word title, but I agree my two-word title has to go. One of my writing friends who read the two-word title (along with its story) advised, “Titles are important. You might want to think about a new one.” Maybe my title composing needs fine-tuning.

Instead, I rationalize my lazy title-writing behavior. Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

Then I remember my first encounter with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shortly after its release. Someone pointed to it in a bookstore and said, “That’s a good book.”

“Oh,” I said. The title didn’t capture my imagination.

A couple of years later, my daughter-in-law said, “I think you’d like this book,” while handing me Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. We’ve similar tastes in books, so I read it and loved it. I’d judged a book by its title. It was time to work on my titles.

Research is a good way to avoid writing, revising, cleaning, so I start with research.

Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

I learn titles can’t be copyrighted. Nice to know. Still, I decide against recycling titles by literary giants or literary middleweights or any other writer. But what about a quote from Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. I search Shakespeare+quotes+youth+death. I find a five-word quote and pare it down to four words, change one word and use a synonym for another word to best fit my story. Inspired by The Bard, I’ve doubled the length of my two-word title, and my writing friend says, “The new title ties in better with your story.”

I’m not stoked about changing my one-word title, but I’m game for more research.

I pull an American short story anthology and a recent literary journal off my bookshelf. The two books contain a total of sixty-three short stories and creative nonfiction narratives. Twenty-one of them have one- and two-word titles. Thirty-three percent. Captivating or not, short titles exist. I keep my one-word title. 

I don’t submit either title to the no-one-or-two-word-titles publication. Self-reflection about this behavior is another essay.

***

“About the title,” a friend starts, “wait—let me finish.”

He’s been teaching writing so long he recognizes the look flashing across my face. At the same time, I know that look is on my face. I’m already taking a deep breath and reminding myself about feedback rules: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t argue.

We’ve met for coffee, but first he’s giving me feedback on a flash essay. The essay is 493 words. The title is twelve words.

“Normally,” my friend says, “lengthy titles are discouraged.”

I didn’t come across a too-long rule in my research, but I know a twelve-word title isn’t the norm. I’d written two titles and torn between them, I weaved them together. 

“But,” he says, “this title works. It mirrors the tone of the essay and sets up the irony revealed at the end.”

Bingo. He understands. Even if he hadn’t, I’d have kept the title. Sometimes a writer has to know when to disregard feedback. But I entertain the idea both of us might be wrong.

The twelve-word title is accepted for publication in a yearly collection of short stories and creative nonfiction.

***

During my research, I find some practical advice for title writing: Engage in a mindless task, think about titles, make a list, then ask your readers which title they like.

Having a story in need of a title, I begin cleaning—my mindless task of choice. (Cleaning and writing have a symbiotic relationship in my world. I take turns doing one to avoid the other.)

After an hour, I’ve five possible titles. I send the story and titles to five different readers, asking them to vote. The first four readers each select a different title. The fifth reader votes for a previously selected title. Without a definitive outcome, I pick the title I like and enter the story in a contest.

Months later I learn my title placed second in the fiction category.

***

I finish my third revision of a flash essay, which has been declined twice. Something in the essay speaks to me, but something’s been missing. Now, I feel the essay says what I want it to say. Out it goes to readers. One reader writes, “powerful ending.” Perhaps I’ve nailed the meaning I wish to convey.

But she began with, “The title is too philosophical.” Yep, she’s right because the essay is about my father, who was a difficult man, and philosophical is where I’m at.

Another reader writes, “This title is perfect.”

I’m not changing the title, so I embrace the second opinion.

I spend the afternoon submitting the title to publications featuring flash essays. Maybe this time.

***

Epilogue

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either. I write short titles and long titles. I write titles I love and titles I tolerate. Feedback is contradictory.

This essay is on its third title.

And the job I’d least like to have? Writing titles or captions.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short story “Silent Negotiations” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize for Fiction Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest for short-short fiction. She recently had an essay and several stories published in three regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on the following blogs: Lake Superior Writers, Brevity, and Perfect Duluth Day. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company. They enjoy the soft clicks of the keyboard keeping rhythm with the classical music. Blog: https://writingnearthelake.org/ 

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