The Work Without a Name, No Title to Call Its Own

Wednesday, July 08, 2009
It has come to my attention through editing articles others have written (as well as in reading book discussions online) that some authors have difficulties or apprehensions when it comes to selecting an apropos book/article title and standing by it. I thought maybe this is something we could wrap our brains around a little bit and see if we can come up with why this may be the case.

Many of the literary classics we have likely all read over the years probably went through several changes in title, maybe even up through the final rounds of editing and revision. The initial manuscript may have not changed much, but the titles likely have. A title has a lot of things to do, ranging from attracting an audience of potential readers to being memorable to encapsulating the essence of the entire book into as few words as possible; therefore, many writers feel it has to be just right and enjoy tinkering with it.

Likewise, some get so annoyed with the process that they opt to leave this task for an editor or another reader to do. Recently, one of the articles sent my way for a science newsletter had a note attached from the author. Could you come up with a title for this? So, after reading and doing my tracking notes for her, I tossed down a potential title and sent it back to the editor and subsequently, back to the author. That was the title which ended up in print.

It was minimal functionalist indeed. It did the job of a title and took a few seconds to come up with after reading the draft. I had worked off a quote in the article and used that as the title, and added a brief sub-title summarizing the article itself. Enough to draw the reader in, yet in the same word choice of the author. I highly doubt anyone would realize the difference in author from title to article itself.

Then, the question begs to be asked, what makes the process of naming a work so difficult for some, so easy for others? I personally have never had a paper or piece of writing where I could not come up with a title, nor have I ever changed any of mine, not even when I have rewritten the entire piece. The only changes I have done were in shortening the length, and that was early on in college as I began embracing the more cumbersome title approaches I was seeing in professional journals, yet finding them to be too long in the end.

Is titling a work akin to coming up with a thesis statement, meaning that if you know where your paper is going, it is all that much easier to parse those ideas and arguments down and form a single sentence summarizing those ideas and arguments? Or, is it that some cannot detach themselves enough from the work to look objectively at it? Alternatively, is it that dread of twenty years down the road asking one's self, why on work did I name it that?

What do all of you think? Please do share any times you found yourself renaming a work time and again or any famous examples of this from literary greats we might know, times where their now-famous works had other titles ascribed to them.


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