Writing Tips: The Dangers of One-Word Titles

No, I am not an agent, published author, editor, etc. etc. What I am is a consumer. As a consumer, there are a few trends in titles that really irk me. What’s more, they make me a significant percent less likely to buy a book afflicted with such a title. Maybe the story is great, but I’ll never find out, because one look at the title and I assume it’s not something I’d want to read. Superficial? Yes. But when you’re faced with hundreds of possibilities, you find a way to narrow down your selection. Cover is big one. Title is another. Even if it’s a great book, I may never know if the title is enough to scare me away. Let’s take a look at some common title trends that set me (and presumably some portion of the reading population) on edge:

One Word Titles: These can be good, except when they’re not. Sometimes, a good cover can make a bland one-word title exciting. Sometimes, there’s no helping it. One-word titles need to be snappy and thought-provoking. They need to say something new. They should generally not include anything such as “Crimson”, “Darkness”, “Moonlight”, and “Raven.” Unless you’re Poe.

Bad examples: I’ll pick on YA, since it’s familiar and quite guilty of this trend.
-- Seduction (Amanda Quick), Passion (Lauren Kate). I know what it’s about now, but I don’t care. It’s not original. It’s just a romance novel staple.
--Hunted (P.C. Cast, Kristen Cast), Tempted (P.C. Cast, Kristen Cast), Wolfsbane (Andrew Cremer). It’s generic. The covers scream creatures of the night. The titles tell me that it’s no different from any other night creature book.
--Frostbite (Rachel Mead). Sometimes puns can work. In this case, with the obvious vampire connection and the uber-serious cover, it just makes the reader groan. It could work with a book meant to be funny; not so much with a serious book.
--Forever (Maggie Stiefvater). Same series as below. Not as strong. The others evoke very concrete, tense feelings. This one just sounds like any old romance novel about immortals.

Good examples: But it also has some great ones.
--Lichgates (S.M. Boyce), Abarat (Clive Barker). These relate to made-up concepts. The browser recognizes this and is intrigued, especially if it’s paired with a decently mysterious cover.
--Crack (still searching for author fruitlessly...), Snuff (Chuck Palahniuk), Shiver (Maggie Stiefvater). The second two are visceral and punchy. They cut right in and create a whole host of associations right away; extra words would bog them down and make them seem softer, friendlier.
--Twilight (Stephenie Meyer). Yes, I dislike the book, but the title is a very clever analogy for Bella’s encounters with the vampires that carries through the four books. And it’s subtle enough not to evoke fangs right away.
--Incarnate (Jodi Meadows), Delirium (Lauren Oliver). Incarnate plus the butterfly cover really makes the reader wonder. Is this standard incarnation? It looks kind of futuristic; could it mean something else? Titles that provoke questions are good; the consumer will read the book to get answers. Same for Delirium. At least with the first cover, which implies something dark and hidden; the second is more generic and doesn’t work as well with the title.

So before you reach for that one-word title, take a second look. Does it cut a deep impression? Does it set you apart? Does it raise questions? Does it have the same general tone and feeling that your cover does? If not, consider something else. The consumers will thank you—by buying your book.

A last caveat: Make sure it’s searchable. I love the title Crack, but I forgot the author and just spent ten minutes trying to google it and coming up with everything but. So make sure you’re not going to get lost in a crowd of nonrelated links!

(UPDATE: Holy editing, Batman! This is what I get for trying to send off a quick post before class...)


  1. I think the single word title is especially prominent in YA. On one hand it has a punchiness but on the other it is lazy. But i suppose in terms of markets in YA they need that immediacy to capture the fickle attentions of today's youth ;-)
    Being a fantasy fan I can't abide anything except multi-word titles, preferably with split-infinitives. And ten books before the story really begins...

    1. YA and romance are where I've seen it the most. Literary fiction too, but most of those can get away with it a little more as being "artsy." Ha, this makes me sad for the youth. But sometimes one-word titles can be so clever! It's just not the norm, as far as I've seen.

      Especially if the multi-word titles contain at least three subtitles. ;)