How to Write a Book Title Correctly: A Step-by-Step Guide + Examples
Few things should scare you more than a botched title. It’s true not only for books but also for any piece of writing you may produce—including blog posts and thought leadership articles.
Let’s be honest: we all would like to think that people don’t judge a book by its cover, but that simply isn’t the case. People do judge a book by its cover, and they certainly judge a book by its title. Readers are unforgiving. You absolutely cannot afford a botched title.
In most cases, a botched title means your piece of writing won’t be read. And if your piece of writing happens to be a book, you’ve wasted a lot of time, effort, and probably money. In this post, we’ll break down how to write a book title correctly.
There are 7 steps to writing a book title correctly:
- Understand the Structure of a Book Title
- Be Able to State the Unity of Your Book
- Define the Appropriate Tone and Style for the Title
- Choose the Most Compelling Image Possible
- Select Strong, Visual Words That Invite Readers
- Test Out Your Book Title With Your Target Market
- Tweak Your Book Title and Make a Final Decision
Follow these steps in order and you are almost guaranteed never to regret your book title choice!
1. Understand the Structure of a Book Title
Nonfiction book titles follow a standard structure: a title, generally 5 words or less, and a subtitle, generally 3 to 7 words. These are simply a rule of thumb; book titles and subtitles can be longer or shorter.
- Title: 5 words more or less
- Subtitle: 3 to 7 words
The title and subtitle vary in length because they serve different purposes. While the goal of the title is to grab the reader’s attention while indicating what the book is about, the subtitle’s role is to provide more information about what the book promises to offer.
- Title: hook
- Subtitle: explanation
Take the following book titles from Amazon’s top most sold and most read books from August 29, 2022.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
- Girl, Stop Apologizing
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos
- The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
- Can’t Hurt Me
- Girl, Wash Your Face
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- Kushner, Inc.
- Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
- Dare to Lead
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiation as if Your Life Depended on It
- Mindfulness in Plain English
- Leadership Wisdom From the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
- Unfu*k Yourself
- Becoming Supernatural
- Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
2. Be Able to State the Unity of Your Book
To find a good title and subtitle, you must be able to state the unity of your book. This expression comes from Mortimer J. Adler’s book How to Read a Book. While Adler applies this idea to reading other people’s books, it is just as true for your own book.
To state the unity of your book is to state the book’s content in one sentence. In Trivium Writing’s Architecture of Writing methodology, we call this the thesis. Informed by your writing goal and purpose, the thesis is the main point to take away from the book.
One of the reasons people struggle to write their book titles correctly is that they don’t have their books in order. In other words, their book is disorganized and lacks a coherent message and structure. That’s why Trivium Writing offers book coaching services.
3. Define the Appropriate Tone and Style for the Title
Each word and phrase conveys a different tone, so if you want to control your readers’ perception when they see your book, you must be deliberate. Before you spend time choosing the words for your book title, decide which tone you wish to convey.
Here are some tone examples:
Here are the three possible styles:
By being deliberate with your tone and style, you’ll be able to attract your audience. For example, you should use a negative tone to appeal to a discontent audience, while you should an optimistic tone to appeal to a hopeful one.
While some audiences prefer an informal style, others prefer a formal one. For example, take two books on the same topic.
The title of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor, is informal in style as it contains a contraction and a direct question. The audience for the book is the general public interested in an introduction to justice.
The Authority of the Court and the Perils of Politics by Stephen Breyer, a then-sitting U.S. supreme court justice, is written in the formal style as it contains the formal word “authority” and no informal element.
Notice the different tones of the two books. Sandel’s book inspires intrigue and curiosity, while Beye’s book inspires urgency and negativity. While the former is open-ended and interrogative, the latter is declarative and closed. Make sure you choose wisely.
4. Choose the Most Compelling Image Possible
You ideally want to create an image in your reader’s mind with your book title. Visual book titles are often the best and the most unforgettable. They also force you to conceptualize your message in a more compelling way.
If you are going to use a visual title, the image should align with your book’s content by being present in your book. In this sense, it may be best to find your book title before writing. If your book is already written, you may find an existing image in your book.
So, how do you go about creating this image for your book title? Assuming you haven’t started writing your book already or that you’re going to make changes later, you should start by looking at the categories that divide the world.
Here are 8 categories:
- Nature: trees, flowers, clouds, ocean, etc.
- People: men, women, children, etc.
- Animals: foxes, wolves, eagles, etc.
- Abstractions: truth, perils, authority, etc.
- Domains: architecture, psychology, art, science
- Roles: mother, father, king, queen
- Objects: couch, speak, car
- Shapes: circle, square, star
Each of these categories contains words with different tones and styles. But the categories in and of themselves have their own tone. Think of what that tone is when you choose a category or a word. You can feel that tone yourself and ask for feedback.
For example, using an image of nature is more grounded than using an abstract concept such as truth or a domain. Meanwhile, using an objective will make your image heavier using a shape will make it simpler.
5. Select Strong, Visual Words That Invite Readers
Now that you have laid out the foundations for your title, it’s time to choose the actual words you will be using. In that regard, it is essential to remember the different words available to us, which are also known as parts of speech.
- Determiners: the, a, an, etc.
- Nouns: tree, man, foxes, etc.
- Adjectives: brilliant, beautiful, etc.
- Verbs: sprint, run, build, etc.
- Adverbs: quickly, violently, slowly, etc.
- Prepositions, of, off, on, in, etc.
- Conjunctions: for, and, but, or nor, yet, since
- Interjections: oh, hey, etc.
While you have a number of parts of speech available to you, not all of them are created equal. In other words, some are more important than others, and while you may use many of them, you probably won’t use them all.
The most important parts of speech are nouns and verbs because they are the main content words—the types of words that create images. While nouns show a person, an object, or a concept, verbs show actions. Both can underlie your book title.
While choosing between nouns and verbs is partly a stylistic choice, that decision should be informed by the book’s content. Verbs are more active than nouns, so in many cases, they may imply that the book is more practical.
For example, Building a Business in 7 Easy Steps uses a verb and suggests a very practical book. Business Creation 101, which uses a noun, does not sound as practical, though it may well be. Meanwhile, The Making of an Enduring Business, by using a different verb and an adjective, sounds more elegant than the first two titles.
6. Test Out Your Book Title With Your Target Market
Once you have a tentative title for your book—and you can have many—you should test it out with your target market. Find people who fit your reader avatar and who are interested in providing you feedback on your early work. Ask them what they think.
As an aside, you should always have beta readers who can provide you with feedback throughout the book writing and publishing process. Make sure you ask them unbiased questions so they can give you valuable, accurate information.
The best way to ask your target market about a book title is to present it to them and ask what they think. Don’t ask any specific questions yet; simply ask your readers what they think. This will help you collect unbiased information about how they feel.
Once you have their initial reaction, ask them which emotions the title evokes. While still general, this question is a bit more guided. Then you may move to more specific questions that give you precisely what you want, such as:
- Does this title make you want to read the book?
- Is this a title you would feel good reading in public?
- Does the title tell you what you’ll get from the book?
7. Tweak Your Book Title and Make a Final Decision
Target market feedback is subjective, and every person will have different opinions. While you shouldn’t let it dictate everything, it’s essential to take this feedback seriously. As a rule of thumb, if more than three people raise a point, pay attention to it.
You shouldn’t necessarily change your title to please your target readers, but in many cases, your readers will lead you in the right direction. For example, if three or more readers indicated that the title is unclear, it’s safe to say your title needs some work.
It is always good practice to have a few backup titles in case your original title doesn’t resonate with your audience. You can also make tweaks to your title; for example, you can change the emotion and the image in the title as well as the explanation in the subtitle.
After making tweaks to your title, run it by your target market once again to see what they think. You may want to repeat this process several times if you can’t find a title that works, is compelling, and resonates with your audience. Your book title matters after all.
If you still feel confused after reading this blog and don’t know where to start with your book title, consider our consulting services. For a small fee, we can help you brainstorm title ideas and help you select the best one for your audience and book.
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