10 Tips for Titling a Manuscript

I posted once before about why titles are important, and agent Suzie Townsend also posted about titles here. What it comes down to is that for most agents, the title is your first impression. You include it in the subject line of your email, so even if it’s at the end of your query, it’s still the first thing an agent sees. I expect this is probably true of editors, too.

The title conveys the tone of your manuscript and–assuming it’s not a one-word title–gives a hint of your writing style. So, how do you come up with a title that makes an agent lean in and say, “I definitely want to see what that query’s about”? I haven’t quite perfected it, but here are some steps I take–not necessarily in this order.

1. List key words, including character names and descriptors. My initial brainstorm consists of throwing out all the words that could be in the title and putting them together in combinations to see what works. To be honest, none of these early titles make the final cut, but they get me thinking.

2. Search the manuscript for key phrases. Sometimes you already have the title somewhere in the manuscript–something a character says or thinks that encompasses the whole thing. This has yet to happen to me, but I’ve read books where the title jumps out in the text and I think, “So that’s where they got that.” SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY comes to mind since I read it recently.

3. Pull out the Thesaurus. Ok, so I actually use the Thesaurus online, but you get the point. I plug in the key words I came up with and list out synonyms that might work better for the title. Then I try those words instead of the ones in my initial brainstorm. Sometimes the Thesaurus gives phrases instead of single words, and that can be helpful, too. There might be a way to twist those phrases into something amazing.

4. Check out topic-specific dictionaries. Since DUET is about a violinist, I went to music sites and read through lists of musical terms. I wanted something that would provide alliteration with “Devil,” and “duet” worked well. There are sites out there for just about any topic you can think of.

5. Make up a new word. I love it when I see a title that twists a word or combines two words to make something new and it’s just perfect. Like PARANORMALCY or VIRTUOSITY. So clever. I explored this for CAVEBOY and DUET but never came up with anything that fit. To my delight, it’s going to work for this one. I’m down to a few final choices, and they all include a twist on an existing word.

6. Plug your key words into Amazon. Browsing existing titles is a great way to get your brain going, and sometimes you can use a title that’s already out there in a new way. I know I appreciate a title that takes something familiar and makes it new–like HEIST SOCIETY (HIGH SOCIETY) or A FAREWELL TO CHARMS (A FAREWELL TO ARMS).

7. Search for quotes. I also do a search for common quotes and phrases with my key words and themes. As with existing titles, quotes are familiar, and if you can find a way to twist them into something new, they can immediately resonate with readers.

8. Check out the rhyming dictionary. One of the ways you can twist an existing title/quote or just come up with something fun is to plug one of the words into a rhyming site. You never know. There might be a rhyming word you could insert in the place of another that would perfectly convey your story. Or, search for your key words, and one of the rhymes might spark an idea from a title/phrase that’s familiar.

9. Pull out the actual dictionary. I guess you could do this online, but this step is easiest for me with a hard copy. There are a couple of reasons to do this. With CAVEBOY, I wanted to use alliteration. I’d come up with the first part: THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO … I decided I wanted three words that would start with the same letter, and I really wanted “bats” to be one of them. So I pulled out the dictionary and read the whole B section. Ultimately I came up with BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES. I also pulled out the dictionary with my WIP because I knew I was going to create a new word, and I needed it to start with IN, so I read through the whole section from “in” to “inwardly.” It’s amazing how inspired you can be just by reading through a section of the dictionary.

10. Play around with the words. Once I’ve tapped these resources, I just play around with the words, putting them in as many combinations as I can think of until a few really stick out. Then I ask which ones convey the right tone, fit with the genre, and will catch someone’s attention. I’ve yet to have a single title jump out and say “Pick me! I’m the one!” I usually end up with a list of five or so. If I’ve worked on a query letter, I plug them in to see if they work. And then I get other opinions. Sometimes I really love a title that my CPs and family members think is awful. So, as with everything else, the title must get approved, too.

And that’s where I am right now–running the title options by others, even though no one else has actually read the manuscript yet. I’m not in a hurry to finalize the title. I have one I’m leaning toward that I can use as a placeholder for now.

How do you come up with titles? Any other resources you use?



About Michelle I. Mason

I'm a full-time writer, focusing mainly on middle grade and young adult fiction with some freelance PR writing and editing on the side. I'm also a wife, mom, Christian, violinist, avid reader and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I watch way too much TV.
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5 Responses to 10 Tips for Titling a Manuscript

  1. Julie Grasso says:

    I love this post. I have to confess I cannot even recall how I came up with first two titles but my latest one I came up with the title first then wrote the book. Great ideas cheers Julie Grasso

  2. Gwen says:

    This is a great post. I have a heck of a time titling fictional pieces. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: A Year of Blogging, Including My Top 10 Posts | Michelle I. Mason

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