Book Proposals

Resist the Urge to Explain Your Title

For fiction writers, there is an important self-editing technique called RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). The problem occurs when an author overwrites a scene and explains every thought, movement, etc., or fails to allow the reader to fill in the details, thereby ruining the reading experience. The concept is described extremely well in Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Today, I’d like to look at it a little differently and apply the phrase “Resist the Urge to Explain” to the title you’ve created for your book.

Too many times an author will come up with a great idea but uses a title that has to be explained. I firmly believe that if you have to explain what your book is, few are patient enough to “listen” and will click to the next book online or their eyes will flit to the next book on the shelf.

I am frequently confronted by this problem in pitches and book proposals. At a conference appointment, someone may verbally pitch their book and I just don’t get it. The writer then spends a minute or more explaining the concept to me. My reply is, “Ah, I get it now. But you can’t make that explanation with every potential buyer online or in a store. You cannot physically do that. It needs a better title.”

Let’s use some goofy examples (these are not real pitches but ones I’ve made up on the spot):

You’ve written a book on personal finance. But the title is Gimme Sum Money. What does that mean? The title does mention money but uses the word sum instead of some. Why? The author might say, “Because it is a clever play on words and will get the reader to stop and explore.” Maybe. But more likely they will walk right past it. (It also doesn’t pass the “radio test” where the title would be misspelled if first heard on the radio.) A better title would be How to Keep the Money You Make.

Another example in fiction. The novel is a romance, and the title is Pillowsoft. Okay. But is that a brand name for a new pillow? Is it a metaphor for romance? Is it the name of a town? The title has to be explained. The reader may just walk right past it. A better title would be In Love’s Embrace. (Granted, that suggested title is rather weak; but you get my point.) Fiction will often have a nebulous title as part of its allure. However, some authors can go too far with their fiction titles and make them sound like nonfiction treatises.

Not every title has to be overly descriptive. For fun, let’s list a few below. Think how the content of the book is well expressed by the title:
Mere Christianity
The Purpose Driven Life
The Compact Guide to World Religions
Jesus Calling

The Five Love Languages
How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious
The Perfect Catch: Lessons for Life from a Bass Fisherman
The Forgotten Trinity

Put another way, when was the last time you bought a book solely on the power of the title? The title got your attention somehow. And then you spent a few seconds reading the back cover copy. Then you bought the book. The title promised you something: advice, entertainment, information, or inspiration.

In case you wonder, this is an ongoing discussion in every publishing house. The detective novelist Raymond Chandler famously wrote his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, “I am trying to think up a good title for you to want me to change.”

Below is an interesting list of famous novels that had their titles changed by the publisher:

Original Working Title Published Title
Leviathan Rising Jaws
It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet All Things Bright and Beautiful
First Impressions Pride and Prejudice
Before This Anger Roots
Trimalchio in West Egg The Great Gatsby
The Whale Moby Dick
Tomorrow is Another Day Gone with the Wind
Sea Cook Treasure Island
All’s Well That Ends Well War and Peace


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