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Imagine a Bookstore Where Books Had No Titles

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, even if that title only serves as a temporary place holder. I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button.

When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays and term papers until I could come up with something better, usually right before I printed it. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title, and didn’t hand in a paper called “Fuckity Fuck”.

A title is a necessary component of any piece of writing, as necessary as a name for a human being. What you are named informs you, and your personality informs your name. What would you be without your name? Even if your parents hadn’t given you a name, you would earn one eventually. People would have to address you somehow.

Similarly, a title informs a piece of writing, and a piece of writing informs its title. If you were in a bookstore where none of the books had titles, you would have to find some way to distinguish among them.

You may not realize how much you rely on titles. Even if you don’t necessarily know what a title means, you know that it makes the beginning of any piece of writing – beginnings aren’t always easy to recognize on their own. Have you ever lost a paperclip that was holding together a stack of photocopied pages? At least the title will help you find the beginning easily. Titles are a formality, and they create an expectation for the reader.

Sometimes, a title can say more about a piece of writing than the actual piece does. Especially in a poem, the title might actually tell the whole story.

For example, in “Wants”, a two-page story by Grace Paley, the narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library, when she’s returning books that are many years overdue. The narrator and her husband have an awkward conversation during which they decide that the reason their marriage fell apart is because they wanted different things. The reader must think about which wants are worthy – did they want different things? Were their wants trivial? Did the narrator want for nothing? The simple title – a word that can be used as either a noun or a verb – really says it all.

Many beginning writers struggle with titles. So, how do you get used to writing titles? Ask yourself: What is the most profound or the strongest image in the story? Is the narrator preoccupied by something? Does the setting play an important role? What do you want the reader to notice the most? Name those things.

Pretend you are in a dark library with your story or poem. You are afraid. You are trying to call out to it.

“Story,” you say. “Poem,” you say.

But, because you are in a library, surrounded by books, you need to be more specific. What would you call it so that it recognizes you?

(Photo by malias)


  1. I often write the piece first, and then title it. Though I have come up with a clever title first about a third of the time.

    You are correct about their importance, either way.

  2. I’ve come up with titles and written entire posts or stories based on them. You gotta have a title.

  3. When browsing a library or bookstore, I scan the titles on book bindings. As a consumer, titles market content. If only writers & publishers were better at matching these things. I wouldn’t be disappointed so often.

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