Searching for the Perfect Title: Michael Norman on 'These Good Men' and 'Tears in the Darkness'

A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.

Working a manuscript, I try to keep an eye out for a good working title, a word or phrase I can hang on the wall of my mind, reminding me that my job is to capture the essence and nature of the topic or the collection of characters I’m writing about.

You don’t find such a title; it finds you. As I’m writing or sifting notes or reading for background, I’m subliminally asking myself, “What is this book about?” Then, when I have hundreds of answers to that question, most of them unsatisfactory, I narrow the question and ask: “What is this book really about?” And the answer to that should be the working title. Simple, right?

Of course not. A title should also be much more than a description of the book’s contents or a statement of its theme. It should be a suggestion, a powerful prompt to readers that the well-crafted work of narrative non-fiction they have in front of them is also about the universe just beyond the book. It urges readers to look for more and think about more than what’s in the pages.

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All of this takes place in that private space where writers struggle through the process of creating a book. It’s a wonderful place, that space. Quiet, insulated against the rest of the world. Plenty of room for grand ideas, room to let the narrative mind wander until it happens upon on the perfect title.

Then you finish the final polish and hand the manuscript to the publisher, and the wonderful place where you created the book is gone. The “book” becomes a “product.” From the writing room to the factory floor. For me, the title has always represented a kind of tipping point between those two states of mind, or to put it in more scholarly terms, the two phenomena.

Every professional writer wants sales. Writers know that to help achieve those sales, their books should carry an intriguing, powerful, elliptical, punchy, shocking, salacious, clever, or otherwise engaging title. Sometimes that title is the working title, or a refinement thereof, and sometimes it’s an editorial directive. Often it’s a conflation of both.

Here are two examples of the effort to find a perfect title.

My first book was a memoir, a look at my time serving as a young man in a Marine Corps combat unit in Vietnam. The title: These Good Men. I was wary of the title at first because, at the time, the Corps was using the advertising slogan, “We’re looking for a few good men.” But the phrase “good men” interested me. What did it mean? “Good,” how? At killing people? There was no goodness on the battlefield. I was thinking of “good” in other, more philosophical terms. So I started reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Lo and behold, there was my “good”: The feeling of comradeship that is as powerful as love. That’s what the book was about. I simply added a demonstrative plural pronoun — short for “these particular men” — and These Good Men: Friendships Forged From War became the title. The subtitle, as I recall, was the publisher’s. And I wasn’t thrilled with it.

My aim is to avoid clichés and threadbare idiomatic expressions, easy titles I call them, and the subtitle Friendships Forged From War struck me as clichéd, wrong-headed, and melodramatic. Friendship does not, in any sense, arise from a blast furnace. And war is not a caldron. It’s a funeral pyre. A broken metaphor all around. The only thing the subtitle had going for it was the alliteration. When all else fails, call for the cavalry of assonance and consonance.

I was an English poetry major in college, so I also thought about the poetics of the three words — the phonemes, the meter, the images. To me the substrata of music produced by the words in a title (or in any phrase or sentence, for that matter) can be as important as the meaning. The title is the reader’s first encounter with the book, and it should have the power of a siren song, one that suggests the essence of the book and acts as a powerful invitation to engage it — which is to say, buy it.

A title can be a summary or coda or an elegant suggestion of what is to come. For me it was also a way to introduce the idea of many characters as well as a characterization of them as a group. I think a writer has to consider the conflation of purposes a title represents and explore the implications of the title for each of those purposes. Again, my first consideration was literary.

I came to my title early, which is to say as I was about to sit down and begin the manuscript. If the title reflects all or most of the themes in the book (conflation without confusion), it helps to keep me on track. It’s like standing on a precipice for a moment, surveying the full landscape of the book just before you sit down to write.

I work hard to come up with a title early, rather than let the publisher begin the process of the title search. On my second book, a co-writer and I spent months wrangling with our editor, going through hundreds of titles; yes, hundreds. And here’s the kicker: The title we ended up with (Tears in the Darkness) was the very first title we had proposed.

The book is a cross-cultural look at America’s first land battle in World War II, a battle that turned out to be the largest defeat in American military history. The book took on the myths of war and tried to unmask them. (Tears in the Darkness, by the way, came from one of the hundreds of interviews we did for the book, a war book with a shifting point of view.) One Japanese character, describing his commander’s reaction to mass casualties, used the word anrui. Japanese expressions often have literal and figurative meanings that serve as complements. In this case, the idiom of anrui was “a broken heart,” but the literal translation was hidden or unseen tears, hence Tears in the Darkness.

Not perfect, but it works.

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The Postscript

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A version of this story was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).

Meet: About the Author

Michael Norman is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His co-authored book Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (2009) was picked by several reviewers as one of the top 10 books of the year. He has also published These Good Men: Friendships Forged From War (1990). Previously, he was a reporter and columnist for the New York Times.

Read: David Abrahamson and Alison Pelczar on Titles

Titles are no doubt a great source of stress for writers — a quick Google search will turn up pages and pages of articles offering advice on the subject. Much of the advice is conflicting, and the only general consensus seems to be how important a good title is. Titles have to sell the book by sounding good while also giving the reader an idea of what’s to come; they have to be catchy, short, and informative, all at the same time.

To make matters more complicated, it’s not always possible to know before publication how well a title will work. We can laugh now at the fact that The Great Gatsby was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg or that Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened, but we can’t know how F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Steinbeck felt about those working titles.

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, a publisher whose Little Blue Books pamphlet series sold hundreds of millions of copies, knew well the power of a good title. He would pull books from his list when their sales weren’t meeting his expectations. Then they’d go to “The Hospital” to be rejuvenated with new titles before rerelease. A few editorial assistants would brainstorm a potential list, and one of those would be tried.

The process could work quite well: Fleece of Gold sold 6,000 copies in 1925 but the following year, rereleased under the title The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, it sold 50,000 copies. Sometimes, even Haldeman-Julius’ young daughter would help; after reading the book Privateersmen, she summarized that it was about seamen and battles, so it was retitled The Battles of a Seaman.

How enticing those titles seem point to something else that can’t be predicted: how well a title will age. Eighteenth-century novel titles were short summaries in themselves, such as the full title of Daniel Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates (1719). The greater detail was necessary at a time when novels were still entering the cultural mainstream, and it would take more than a word or two to pique a reader’s curiosity.

More recent classical works often have titles derived from other works. Popular sources include Shakespeare (Brave New World; Pale Fire), the Bible (The Sun Also Rises; Absalom, Absalom!), and the works of major poets (Of Mice and Men; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Now, it’s common for works to have single-word titles — but the pressure to summarize, or least capture the essence of, the work within nevertheless remains.

Those articles online do offer a few modern suggestions to creating titles, but take any or all of the advice at your own risk. Methods range from A/B testing to random title generators (which can generate titles as inane as The Missing Twins to as nonsensical as The Teacher in the Alien).

Common title structures make something like a random title generator possible; the titles can sound real, albeit not always. And because there are no copyrights on titles, some small subgenres of fiction do see titles recycled every few years. But picking a title that truly fits takes a bit more work.