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14 Patterns for Successful Article, Post, and Speech Titles

Writing

I mentioned recently that I’m beginning to do speaking engagements, and one of my steps in preparing for this has been to take the topics I chose to focus on at the start and come up with the strongest titles for them I could find. I didn’t want hype: I wanted to come up with titles that loudly and proudly promised exactly what I was going to deliver, and did it in a way that would get the attention of my target audiences.

I already have an article on titles for fiction (“Luc’s Desiderata of Titling“), which is an entirely different process. It has similar intentions, but uses completely different methods. For non-fiction, I have experience but had never really thought out the possibilities, so I did some research, reading articles other people wrote about titling, evaluating titles I felt were really effective, and experimenting with everything I found.

Two of the most useful articles I found are freely available on the Web: “Presentation Titles That Attract an Audience” by Olivia Mitchell and the section I’ve linked to in “Answer People’s Key Question”  by Craig Hadden.

From this groundwork, I’ve come up with 14 patterns that can be used to brainstorm arresting titles for how-to articles, blog posts, keynotes, etc. For each pattern, I’ve made up an example to demonstrate, although many of these patterns can be used in a wider variety of ways than the single example would suggest. The invented titles are meant to demonstrate how each pattern can work well, so if it’s successful, each one should intrigue you (at least, if you’re in the right target audience for that title).

1. How to ___ (optionally include a benefit)
“How to Stop Micromanaging Your Children for Their Happiness and Yours”

2. How (noun) (verbed)
“How the Dishwasher Changed the Way We Eat”

3. X {keys, ways, requirements, challenges, ideas, etc.} to/for ______
“3 Keys to Never Forgetting Another Name”

4. (New research/information/etc.)
“New Research on the Best Way to Exercise”

5. X Common Mistakes ______
“3 Common Mistakes We Make When Choosing a Spouse”

6. The X Worst _____
“The 5 Worst Ways to Teach Math”

7. (The Truth/Secrets/Hidden Information)
“What Your Child Is Really Doing at ‘Student Council Meetings’”

8. How Can I ____ ?
“How Can I Be On Time, Every Time?”

9. Do (something desirable) by/with ______
“Get Crucial News Faster Using This Smartphone App”

10. (Catchy phrase or intriguing promise): (explanatory subtitle)
“Be Rich Instantly: How to Realize Your Desires Without Paying a Cent”

 11. ______ versus (something similar but suggestively distinct)
“The Successful Novel vs. the Best-Selling Novel”

12. What/How (some enviable group of people) ____ Differently
“How The Most Successful People in the World Learn Differently”

13. (Common thing or phrase) (uncommon contrast or claim)
“Safe Investments –Why They Haven’t Existed Since 1992″

14. (Brief time or other suggestion that this will be quick or easy) (action or role)
“12-Minute Math Boosters”

The general theme is the same throughout: all of these types of titles are promising something that’s valuable and new to the audience or reader. They only differ in how they’re attempting to capture someone’s interest. I’d suggest that this is what a non-fiction article or speech is about: offering new information that has value. We can just slap titles that are pretty or that play with words on if we just need a handle, but that means the title isn’t doing the work it could do. On the other hand, we may have a topic that does all the work itself, for instance “Archbishop Dies In Lemming Attack” or “Exxon to Convert to Worker-Owned Cooperative.”

Some of these title formats are familiar from magazines that over-promise, and I hope that neither you nor I will ever do that with our own titles. Titles like “The 4 Foods That Melt Fat Overnight” and “Make a Killing in Real Estate With These 3 Easy Tips” are hype rather than promise, and fulfilled promises are what it’s all about.

A writer friend pointed out that some titles that use these patterns can come across sounding like hype even if they may have something real to offer. Obviously, we want to avoid that too.

I used this list to brainstorm titles for my four initial speaking topics, and then I asked people in my writing group to review the titles and mark any that they liked or disliked. In the near future, I should have a chance to post those brainstormed titles and the total response each one got. By the way, this survey process has turned out to be very educational: I recommend it for working out especially important titles.

Of course, these options don’t begin to exhaust the possibilities, but they do reflect a healthy percentage of what seem to me the most successful titles of this kind out there. I expect to update this article over time (completely screwing up the number in the title) as I come across more of them. Do you know of any? Suggest them in the comments, if you’d be so kind–or use comments to take issue with any of the above approaches you don’t like.

Photo by Amy

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Would Scrivener Make You a Happier Writer?

Writing

The process of writing has changed enormously in the past 50 years. Word processors transformed writing from something you have to redo every time you want to make changes to something that can include any number of changes with no extra effort beyond the edits themselves. The Web has elevated research from a limited, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive process into a few minutes communing with Google. Laptops and similar devices have taken these improvements out on the road. Print on demand and especially eBooks have opened an entirely separate career path for some independent writers.

In comparison to these game-changing tools and resources, what difference does Scrivener make? Well, if you’re like about 80% of writers, the answer used to be “none at all,” because Scrivener was originally a Mac-only program. Unless you’ve been beta testing the Windows version, all that changed yesterday when Scrivener 1.0 for Windows was introduced.

What’s so great about Scrivener?
I originally posted about Scrivener in an article called “How Tools and Environment Make Work Into Play, Part I: The Example of Scrivener.” My main point in that article was that for long or complex writing projects–novels, screenplays, stage plays, non-fiction books, articles with lots of information, or even short stories with especially detailed worlds or plots–Scrivener takes the heavy lifting out of organizing a lot of thoughts, resources, research, ideas, plot points, facts, scenes, or other details into a living outline that naturally evolves into your actual book.

For example, when I wrote my short book The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation (available in PDF form for free on this site, or for 99 cents on Amazon for the Kindle), I had an enormous number of tips, tricks, insights gleaned from scientific research, anecdotes, and whole articles to organize into a well-structured book. Using Scrivener, I dumped everything in without worrying about the order and then was easily able to organize it all into a structure that I could write and rewrite my way through until I had a clean final draft. While organizing, I was able to focus on just a few elements at a time, which took away that crazy, overwhelmed feeling of worrying that I’d forget some important piece of information. Once I began my actual writing, it also allowed me to focus singlemindedly on what I was writing.

How does Scrivener work?
The basic idea behind Scrivener is very simple: it conceives of a piece of writing as a bunch of pieces of text, each of which might be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, an illustration, some research material, notes for your reference, etc. These pieces are organized into two general categories: Draft (for the writing itself) and Research (for supporting material that’s not intended to wind up in the actual book).

All of these pieces can be organized into an outline. For instance, I might start with these ideas for an evil bathtub story:

Note that in this picture I’m just showing the “binder,” the section on the left where I come up with the pieces I want to organize. I typed the names of my pieces right into there. I also could have started with some material I’d already written, which would go into the text area on the right that appears as I click on each item.

As you can see, I’m starting with some ideas about characters, a few plot points, some incidents, and some research. I’m not sure what happens when yet: all I have is glimpses of what’s happening in a short story about an evil bathtub.

(It’s ironic to me that I had forgotten, in putting together this example, that in college I actually wrote a story in college about a cursed bathtub. I guess this is a thing with me. I think the title was “Miriam Pzicsky and the Handyman from Hell.” I’m pleased to say that I have improved as a writer somewhat since college.)

In the next picture, you’ll see what I did with those pieces of information: I chose to impose three-act structure (something I don’t have to do and generally don’t do explicitly) and then dragged the items around into something resembling an order for the story. One of the great things about Scrivener is that in doing this, I automatically begin to see where there are holes in the story, where it might get repetitive, and what kind of structure I’m dealing with. Just seeing the story as an outline helps me improve the story.

click to enlarge

Once I’m done adding or changing elements in my outline, I’ll just start clicking on items in it and writing those items one by one. I can add, delete, and move around pieces as I write (which is why I refer to this as a “living outline”), and the click-and-write experience makes it easy to focus on one part of the piece at a time.

Scrivener has many, many more useful features. This glimpse is only meant to show what I think is the key useful concept behind the program. Fortunately, it’s more than a concept: the software has been developed with a lot of appropriate, productive, and easy-to-use features.

While Scrivener is useful, it’s also fun, at least for me. When I use Scrivener, I use less of my attention to keep track of details and more of it to write. This makes me a happier writer.

When is Scrivener not useful?
Scrivener isn’t for everyone. If you like to start writing a piece from the beginning and then go right through to the end, or if you tend to make a traditional outline just to get a grip on what you’re doing and then don’t do much with that outline except consult it as you write, I’m not sure Scrivener would be especially helpful for you. If you write off the cuff, without research or planning, there won’t be much Scrivener can help you organize. Personally, I love Scrivener’s organizational features, but I rarely use it for short stories: I find it much more useful for outlined novels and non-fiction projects.

Even if you write by the seat of your pants, though, you may find Scrivener invaluable. You can start writing a novel by typing “Chapter 1″ and plunging ahead with only the most general sense of where you’re going, but even in that kind of situation you will probably start coming up with scenes you want to include later, plot developments that need to occur, bits to insert into what you’ve already written, research materials, and more things to be organized. Scrivener doesn’t care whether you organize before, during, or after writing: it just helps you get everything into a usable structure.

If I’ve piqued your interest
The fine folks at Literature and Latte offer a free, 30-day trial which is in fact far better than most 30-day trials in that it doesn’t count calendar days, but instead days you use Scrivener. If you use it twice a week, your 30-day trial will last you 15 weeks. You also don’t have to create an account, sign up for anything, or even supply an e-mail address to get the trial. You can download it here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php .

If you do opt to buy, the price is $40, but there’s a 20% discount you can find at http://www.literatureandlatte.com/nanowrimo.php . A 50% discount is available for people who “win” NaNoWriMo, completing at least 50,000 words of a novel project in the month of November. (For more info on NaNoWriMo, go to http://www.nanowrimo.org/ .)

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Trusting Books

Writing

I’m reading three books in alternation at the moment, and I’m not sure I trust any of them.

Trusting a writer’s competence
The first is a non-fiction book about how people change, and while it’s interesting and entertaining so far, one of their opening topics is some of the research that has been done into the alleged depletion of willpower–experiments where half the subjects are given a task that requires willpower and half aren’t, and then all subjects are given a task that (unknown to them) is impossible. The finding is that the people who have not had to exercise willpower in the first part of the experiment tend to stick with the impossible task longer. The researchers concluded from this that willpower must be a resource that can be used up.

Without going into the subject in great detail here, the conclusion is just a theory of how willpower works, and it isn’t one for which anyone as far as I know of has offered a realistic mechanism. The experimental results (the group that hasn’t had to exert willpower doing better on the task) are interesting, but the interpretation is just an educated guess, and a problematic one–see “Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?.” Yet the authors of the book I’m reading talk about the theory as though it’s established fact and move on from there. Do they really not understand the difference between scientific evidence and a theory used to explain the evidence? This is key for someone who’s going to be interpreting the results of scientific studies.

So for that first book, I’m not sure I trust the authors’ competence, which is a problem.

Trusting a writer’s intentions
The second book is a novel, John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I have a vague idea that I’ve read it before, but all I remembered was how revolting the main character was. Re-reading it, I find that all of the characters are revolting: they’re stupid or weak or pitiable or mindlessly self-centered. I don’t believe that’s what people are actually like, as a rule, and so when an author fills a novel with such characters at the start, then I have to wonder what the author’s view of the world is and where the story is going. In this book, I don’t trust the author’s intentions for the book.

Trusting a writer’s personality
The third book is actually a series of lectures on CD, but since it’s very much like an audiobook, I’m treating it as one. The subject is Russian history, and the lecturer has a great many strong credentials. What I’ve heard so far of the series is interesting, clear, and–as far as I can tell–very well-informed. I feel pretty confident that the guy knows what he’s talking about.  So what’s my problem? I don’t have much of one, except that the author’s photo is on the front of the CD case, and in that photo his smile is one-sided, a type of expression that often means pretend friendliness that actually masks contempt or displeasure. The expression reminds me of an acquaintance whose actions and choices are routinely awful and unkind. So in this case, I don’t trust the author personally–admittedly, based on very scant information. It’s very iffy to try to interpret body language based on a single expression or gesture (see “How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language“)–but I’m on my guard.

Trust in person
When someone asks “Do you trust me?”, they’re really asking at least three different things:

1) Do you trust my intentions?
2) Do you trust my decisions?
3) Do you trust my skills?

For instance, someone might offer to take care of my kids for me, and if I didn’t trust them on any of those three fronts, then I’d have to say no. If I didn’t trust that they intended to keep my kids safe, happy, and healthy, then that would be a no go. If they did mean well but tended to make bad choices–for instance, if the person were an active alcoholic or very absent-minded–then there would still be a problem, because I wouldn’t trust their ability to make good decisions. And people who mean well and are on the ball but don’t know what they hell they’re doing aren’t good candidates for an important job, either.

This applies to books because writing a book is an important job. If the book is successful at all, it will have anything from hundreds to millions of readers, and each reader is going to devote hours of focused attention to the book, which gives the writer responsibility for thousands to many millions of hours of readers’ time. Personally, if I’m going to invest, say, 6 or 7 hours in reading a book (which is roughly how long it takes an average adult reader to read an average novel), I want to be sure I’m investing that time well.

How it all shakes out
So for the non-fiction book, I’ll read a little further and see whether the authors seem to be taking care with their facts. If not, I’ll stop reading, because bad information is worse than no information at all.

For the novel, I may or may not read a little further to see if there’s any hint of a worldview that I care about. If the author continues to go on depicting a world in which everyone is pathetic and awful, I’ll drop it, because I don’t think that’s a realistic or useful way to look at the world. I wonder if that isn’t what I did the first time I tried reading it.

But where the Russian history lectures are concerned, I think I’ll probably keep listening. Even if the author happens to be an unkind or untrustworthy individual personally (and of course I have no clear reason to believe that he is, just a hint that he might be), I do trust him to do a good job of teaching about Russia through audio lectures, because that’s not an activity that requires any personal interaction. This is one place where writing departs from taking care of children, that in some cases bad people can write good books.

What about you? Do you trust the books you’re reading? Or writing?

Photo by K’s GLIMPSES

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