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Head 'em up! by Susan Stephenson


Musings -- Editor -- Susan Stephenson



Head’em up!



In a previous column,( ), I discussed ways of jolting ourselves out of writer’s block by using other writers’ ideas or allowing our computers to help us. However, sometimes, it’s not starting the story that’s difficult. Perhaps what we need is a snappy title, one that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading.


One method of brainstorming a title is to try changing one word in the name of a movie, book or song. My husband wrote a story about some rebellious rodents and a grain elevator. We took the word,” grain”, played with it and came up with “The Grains of Wrath”, which fit the plot really well.


Recently I wrote an article about a very spiritual experience at Coffs Harbour’s Butterfly House. While searching for a catchy name, I sat back in my chair and idly skimmed the novel spines in my bookcase. John Irving’s “Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance” morphed into “Zen and the Art of Butterfly Maintenance” and my article not only had a title but also a focus.


Can you think of books or movies where the titles seem to have been chosen that way? Did the movie title, “Two for the Money”, derive from a line in “Blue Suede Shoes”? “Eyes Wide Shut” seems to be based on the saying “eyes wide open” but one word has been changed to make a distinctive and memorable title.

Jim Heinrich, Sunday Magazine copy editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recommends using a rhyming dictionary and playing word association games when writing headlines. He points outMany good headlines come from thinking of words that SOUND like key words you're writing about. Some hammerhead examples: "Carnival knowledge" -- "Bra, humbug" -- "Paradise lofts" -- "Show me the monkey" -- "Believe in ferries." ‘Read more of Jim’s article here:

Another way of creating a title is to browse lists of quotes or sayings. Perhaps that’s how writers came up with “All That Glitters” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes”? I browsed a list of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quotes and plucked these titles:  “Delicious Torment” (filed that one away in case I ever write a steamy romance!), ‘The Fuel of Magnificence” (article about solar power?),”Beauty Steals Inward” ( article on aging) and “Drink the Wild Air” (my next short story). Google “quotes” and you’ll be spoilt for choice.

But is it possible to get too fancy with title choice? Absolutely! We need to remember the main purpose of a title is to catch a reader’s attention and have them want to read an article or story. To do that, a title should give a signal as to the content.

Kelly Curtis, freelance writer, ( ) believes the key to a good headline is the "feeling" of a piece, rather than its literal description.  Kelly says, “…the final headline is rarely the one I start with.  Until I've finished the article, I'm never completely sure of the form it will take. I love alliteration and assonance, twisted clichés and even mild hyperbole.  Humor's ideal, if you've got it.  Numbers are also a great attention-getter.”   

Below, I asked Kelly to give us a commentary on titles she chose for her articles recently.


“First Mate for a Day -- Readers easily visualize with this short description, and the long a's sound nice together.  It's an exaggeration that my nine-year-old daughter was the sole-Gilligan, but her experiences that day made her feel every bit the First Mate. 


Jilted by a Calico -- The short "i" assonance is subtle, but oh-so-sweet.  Was my lover a feline?  No, but the tongue-in-cheek emotions in the piece were similar. 


Hold the Mustard -- This expression is cliché, but when the "mustard" is Blue Crab entrails, the heading takes on a whole new, humorous tone.


Mayberry Moves to Wisconsin -- Notice the alliteration?  It's an exaggeration that the fictional town uprooted, but a slice of it now resides there, in the form of a B&B


Two Kids, Two Grownups, 1,000 Miles in an Opal -- The "are you nuts?" factor will grab attention.  In this case, the story delivered what the headline promised.


Ten ways to empower your kid this summer -- Although completely unoriginal, "10 Ways" articles tend to sell -- both the reader and the editor.”


(You can find out about Kelly’s professional writing services at )



There are other prompts to help with title choice. John Floyd has an excellent article, “Entitlement, Choosing the Right Name for Your Story”, about it here: I think Dan Poynter sums it up best when he answers the question “What is a good title? It is one that sells the book.” ( Read as much as you can about ways of choosing titles, about titles that hook the reader and those that don’t, play and be creative with it. Come up with a selection and ask some friends to choose the one they would want to buy if they saw it in a bookshop or magazine.


And if none of that works for you, ask a nine-year-old.



Have you been to these sites?

Duotrope's Digest of Fiction Fields
A free, searchable database of over 500 fiction and poetry
markets. All listings are checked at least once a week to ensure
the database is as up-to-date as possible.  Also, it offers
deadline calendars, response time statistics, and submissions



Don Nilsen’s links to humour sites



From Post Box To Agency Inbox:
An Insider Look At How An Agent Reads and Evaluates The Requested Sample Pages For Your Novel


By Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency, LLC



Until next month, write on!


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