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Nonfiction Patterns

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

A very popular pattern for nonfiction titles at present is an intriguing one-word title followed by a long subtitle that fully explains the topic of the book, often with contrasting concepts. For example, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion by David Zweig. The intriguing one-word title, Invisibles – what can that mean? Then comes the explanation with the contrasting concepts of anonymity and relentless self-promotion.

We see the same pattern exactly in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. The intriguing one-word title, Blink – what can that mean? Then the explanation with the contrasting concepts of thinking and not thinking. Note that while the one-word title might not reveal the subject matter clearly enough on its own, it makes perfect sense once the overall topic has been explained. The one word isn't arbitrary in the slightest.

It's important, too, that when you've read the title and subtitle, you understand the core idea of the book. This doesn't happen with Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business. If the two previous examples were "tens" on a scale of one to ten, this would be just a six or seven. The word "zilch" is arresting, and we have a nice repetition of the letter z in "zero," but what is the book about? It has something to do with nothing, but it's not clear what.

Another perennially popular pattern is the straightforward "how-to" or "what you're going to learn" type of title. Secrets of the Millionaire Mind – you don't really even need a subtitle with that. Likewise, for Crocheting in Plain English – extremely clear and very appealing to someone who wants techniques explained simply.

When you're teaching something in a book, it's hard to go wrong with numbers. Examples of titles with numbers include The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and my own book, 6 Steps to Free Publicity. In my case, the "six steps" referred to in the title came up in only one chapter of the book, so the subtitle was important: 6 Steps to Free Publicity: And Dozens of Other Ways to Win Free Media Attention for You or Your Business.

The number can appear in the subtitle rather than the title, as in Maine Home Cooking: 175 Recipes from Down East Kitchens by Sandra Oliver or What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker.

Let's go back to my first two instances of titles with numbers, because they each exemplify an additional principle for building titles. The Four-Hour Workweek makes a bold promise, that you can earn a great living in just four hours a week, and I believe it's largely on the strength of that promise that people bought the book. Another title making a gutsy promise is Forever Fat Loss. Note that this is a lot more interesting than a more predictable title such as Forever Slim, because it's more specific. Specificity is good!

And taking another look at 6 Steps to Free Publicity, besides the number six, this title explicitly states the outcome, result, or benefit that readers want – free publicity. Remember the old saying, people don't really want drills, they want the holes made by the drills. Two other titles highlighting an outcome are Thinner Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Female Body and Dating Success After 40.

We haven't mentioned humor yet, but puns can be a legitimate technique for generating a title, either for a book that is intended to make us laugh or one that has a lighthearted tone while also teaching something. Tongue Fu!: How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict by Sam Horn is a great example in the latter category. Obviously, "Tongue Fu" is a play on kungfu, the Chinese martial art, and it's very apropos for a discussion of how to get one's verbal opponent down on the mat without violence.

Another one I like is The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics. Notice that what's written as "some antics" comes across to the ear as "semantics." Together with the play on Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, that makes two puns in one title. Very clever!

Apparently, some people spend their spare time coming up with ridiculously punny book titles and author names. You have to say them out loud to get the joke, like Geology by Roxanne Minerals. If you want that sort of title, an irrepressible punster can think up possibility after possibility for you the way some other people can reel off baseball statistics or the Presidents.

Metaphors used in titles are imaginative yet more serious than puns. John Gray's book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus offered such a memorable summary of purported differences between men and women, right from its very title, that it stayed on the bestseller lists for more than two years straight. Another classic book using a metaphor in its title: What Color is Your Parachute? To understand that title as pertaining to finding a career, you need to know the phrase "golden parachute" – the settlement someone may get when being kicked out of a high corporate position.

Speaking of creativity, you can make up a word in your title. Freakonomics was the first popular work on behavioral economics, which studies how people make financial and other everyday decisions. I'm not sure what's freaky about the author's approach, but Freakonomics rhymes with "economics" and sure does sound a lot more fun than Macro Econ 101. New York Times writer and NPR commentator David Brooks made up a word in his title Bobos in Paradise, the word "bobo" being a coinage for "bourgeois bohemians." I don't find this a particularly good coinage, because it's challenging to guess what "bobo" means – boy hobo?

Let's quickly look at a few more nonfiction title patterns before going on to fiction.

Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat Pray Love – three thematic words one right after each other without connective words – struck a nerve and gives us a pattern that you might copy. This pattern has also been used for some very elevated works, like Martin Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought.

A nonfiction title can consist of a complete sentence or question, such as Orange Is the New Black or If You Build It, Will They Come?

Consider also the power of repetition, from the classic work Our Bodies Ourselves, first published in 1973 and still in print, and another work with longevity, What to Expect When You're Expecting.

You can brand yourself in the title, à la Dr. Art's Guide to Science or Ask Marilyn: Answers To America's Most Frequently Asked Questions.

And last, you can try the curiosity hook – as long as you're very, very careful in doing so. A phrase that jumped out at me from my local paper a couple of years back was in a headline that read "Balmy Planet Found in Goldilocks Zone for Life." Apparently, astronomers have given the name "the Goldilocks zone" to planetary environments that are neither too cold nor too hot. As in the Goldilocks fairy tale, they are just right to support life.

This is the kind of catchy phrase that could work wonderfully in a book title such as My Search for the Goldilocks Zone: Memoirs of an Obsessed Astronomer. Equally, it could go in the subtitle, as in Astronomy is My Life: Searching for the Goldilocks Zone.

Note that in both of these options, the other part of the title clarifies the subject matter of the book (astronomy rather than fairy tales or South Seas adventure travel). If the title were only Searching for the Goldilocks Zone, it would be much less effective. Simply The Goldilocks Zone would be weaker still. A good curiosity title arouses the question, "What's that?" or "Tell me more" while also providing some context.

In the next lesson, we will turn to the kinds of patterns that work for fiction titles.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin