Choosing the title of a book seems to be an almost impossible task.
Is there a method or science behind a title that works vs. a title that's just “meh?” And interestingly, when does a “meh” title work just fine. We go deep, but not too deep into how to create evocative titles. If you've ever struggled with a title, here's a system that will work almost every single time.
3) How to Create Powerful Titles
Warm blueberries and ice-cream.
I'm not sure if you've tried it, but it was one of the desserts, my wife, Renuka would serve at parties. When we owned a microwave, she'd heat up the berries a tiny bit and then place it on top of cold ice-cream.
The tartness of the berries contrasted with the intense sweetness of the vanilla ice-cream at one level. However, the warmth and cool created a second level of contrast, thus creating a dessert that most guests loved.
The opposite of contrast could be considered camouflage, couldn't it?
And when we're in search of a title for a book, report or any document, camouflage isn't exactly what we have in mind. Why not swing right to the other side and create contrast? This is the third point that got my attention in Malcolm Gladwell's course on Masterclass.com. Deep into the course in Chapter 18, he touches on the topic of titles and suggests that titles need an emotional connotation.
He chooses American political activist, Ralph Nader's book as an example.
Nader's book, which was published in 1965, accused car manufacturers of negligence. The book suggested that car manufacturers were not introducing safety features such as seat belts, or bothering too much to make the car safe. The book went on to be a best seller in 1966. The name of the book? “Unsafe at any speed”.
The magic of the book seems to pop out from the title itself.
The suggestion that car driving is dangerous 100% of the time creates a deep sense of contrast. When you take a title and contrast it with something that is not supposed to be there, it creates intensity. Gladwell takes another example talking about a book called “The Art of Failure”, which happens to be an article by Gladwell, but also a book on video games by Jesper Juul.
No matter which planet we're on when we run across such a title, we are beamed back to Earth immediately. We are jolted by the contrast in the title and the article—or the book—gets our attention.
Attention is cool, but it it's not the only reason for the title
“I will not be talked out of my titles,” he says. “I'm open to criticism on every level, but not about titles”. The reason for the title is how it frames what is to follow. When you have a great title, a contrast-laden title, it frames how the audience listens or reads your material. You have a huge advantage in capturing the client's attention.
The title of Gladwell's podcast, “Revisionist History” is a good example. History, by its nature, cannot be revised. Granted that Gladwell already has star power and for that reason alone you might listen to the podcast, but even so, a title like “Revisionist History” gets a listener to give the podcast a first look.
Add tension to the title whenever you can
A book like Dartboard Pricing has instant voltage. Pricing is supposed to be precise. It's supposed to have at least a feeling of the science behind it. A dartboard, at least for most of us, seems to be a game that's slightly random. We throw darts at a board more with hope than with any skill.
Which is why the title “Dartboard Pricing” holds your attention. A similar feeling arises with “the Brain Audit”. The brain, with its 86 billion neurons feels unfettered and free. How could anyone do an audit on the brain? And this concept of tension doesn't just apply to books.
When we started Psychotactics, I met with colossal resistance
Granted, I didn't know many people online, but the few I knew were not at all keen on me giving a name that seemed to suggest anything but marketing. We noticed that a considerable number of subscribers clicked through on search engines, curious to know why anyone would use “psycho tactics” in their marketing.
It's important to believe in your title but at times, it pays to be mundane
The Article Writing Course is an ordinary title, and so is the title of the Sales Page Course. However, they're descriptive, and they do the job. However, a product like ‘Black Belt Presentations' could have been more imaginatively named, that's for sure.
A bit of contrast or at least some tension in the title would make it so much more interesting. And this brings us to an important point. You may come up with a title and want to defend it, but it does take a lot of practice to get to good titles. Or does it?
Let's do the contrast bit, shall we?
Here are some examples of books that are already out there.
Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I Used to Love)
Thinking Fast and Slow
Want a couple more?
Getting Slightly Famous
Strategic Goalsetting: How to achieve at least 50% of your goals
Contrast is what matters in life. Without distinction, we have mostly camouflage, boring titles and just plain ol' cold, vanilla ice-cream.
4) Drafts and Revisions: How They Help Avoid Writer's Block
What should the name, Edmund Bergler be famous for?
If you ever get that question in a quiz, here's the answer: writer's block.
That's because, in 1950, Bergler wrote a paper called “Does Writer's Block Exist? Bergler wasn't just shooting the wind. He'd been studying writers for well over twenty years and decided that writers didn't just “drain themselves dry”. They didn't run out of inspiration, either. They were motivated, talented people who just seemed to be unable to write any more.
Bergler decided the best way to “unblock the writer” is through therapy. Yup, psychoanalysis was where you were headed for if you had the “affliction” of Writer's Block.
Luckily we know a lot more about this so-called affliction today
And at least in some way, Bergler was right. It's a psychological problem. Gladwell takes on this topic in the chapter on “Drafts and Revisions”. “Writers need to set realistic expectations,” he says.
To avoid that menacing feeling of failure, we all need to set the bar a little lower. A writer often measures their output based on random benchmarks, e.g. 1000 words a day. Anxiety and frustration are constant companions for such writers. The more pressure you exert on yourself, the more likely you are to put some serious barriers in your progress.
It's essential for a writer to know how to tackle the writing process
“The truth is, you can't write a lot in a day. It's demanding creative work and physically and mentally strenuous. It wears you out,” says Gladwell. And he's exactly right.
An idea isn't fully formed when you start writing. That idea morphs, changes and may even need to be discarded. “I find myself mulling over something in my head for ten times than it takes me to write it,” says Gladwell. “If I have a good page, I'm delighted”, he says.
It's essential for a writer to know how to tackle the writing process
If you were to look over the shoulders of people who write a lot, you'd find they're frustrated a lot. And this doesn't just apply to writing. When I'm drawing a cartoon, for instance, I'll head to the cafe or the library with no idea what I'm about to create. All I have is a sort of vague idea or concept, and I'll put pencil to iPad and doodle. But at first, the ideas are pretty dull.
Then another thought may cross my mind, or I may check Pinterest, and the idea will form into something entirely unexpected. Take, for instance, a drawing I did the other day about “how to warm up your copywriting”. I stared at the iPad willing it to send me an idea, but I had none.
The usual heater, hot sun etc. ideas came to mind, but they were boring. Then I saw a hot water bottle. That set the chain of thoughts in progress, and voilà, I had an idea worth keeping. But this ideation process is only fun at the end, and it's inconsistent. The only thing you can guarantee is that you're going to spend a lot of time thinking, getting distracted and then jumping on the tiniest sliver of inspiration.
Writing is remarkably similar
Recently I was writing the notes for the Sales Page Workshop, and I was blank. Bear in mind this wasn't a project that was starting out from scratch. I'd conducted this workshop in Queenstown and had slides with detailed explanations. Even so, I was blankly staring at an image of a panther I'd dragged onto the page. I was sure that the notes somehow connected to this panther, but I couldn't figure out what to do.
“If you complete just three-four paragraphs a day, that's great,” says Gladwell
“If you set yourself up to do a lot more than that, you're really setting yourself up for disappointment. A few good paragraphs represent a substantial achievement”.
Often when I'm writing, I don't even bother to write at all. Instead, I just outline. I may choose to outline on a plain piece of paper. On other days, I may use the iPad or instead use a mind map software. It's impossible to tell what mood I'll be in, but the goal is to clear my thoughts.
A single chapter will have one mindmap, then another and another
By the end of the week, I have raced through six or seven mind maps, but not a single word on the page. It's maddening, even when I know what's happening. And what's unfolding is a sense of clarity. Some writers like Gladwell choose to write a few paragraphs, then stop for lunch and do something else like interviewing.
My system is to get to the cafe, look out blankly at the window and create a mountain of mind maps over several days. When I'm ready to write, I've done most of my thinking and refining, and it's all go, go, go, but no, we're not headed to the end of the document.
After the drafts comes the revisions
I won't let anyone see my work while I'm creating it. And I won't write based on what clients want, either. I will write what I need to write, and when I've got the entire chapter down or even a few chapters, that's when I send it out to David G. David is one of two or three people whom I trust to go through my work.
David is a client, not an editor, but he has a certain way of looking at a book that appeals to me. He improves my thought process. Teresa R is the other person whom I'll rely on a lot.
She tends to be very picky about elements I tend to gloss over. For instance, I once wrote: Everyone knows what a “red moon” is all about, right? And she came back and said no. I had to clean up my writing as a result.
All of these revisions are for books and course notes, but back when I started Psychotactics, I had another client, Chris Ellington. Chris would rip through my work, and I'd be looking at dozens of changes and tearing out my hair in frustration. The revisions come at a later stage, but it's just as frustrating to deal with them, as it seems to impede your progress.
Instead, what's happening all the time is your work is improving
With enough time, your ideas get sharper, the concepts are explained better, and your product becomes far more finished than if you just dashed it off in a hurry. All around you, you'll have business writers who will gleefully tell you how they wrote a book in super-fast time and usually, the text reads like that.
It's not carefully crafted; the stories lack pace or restraint. The entire book feels like a meal of scrambled eggs—a real rush job. That's not as if to say you have forever to create a book or an article.
At Psychotactics, we tend to set a deadline
Our course notes are promised to clients by a fixed date, which is usually one month before the course begins. If I'm writing a book, I'll pre-sell it and give a specific date. And to make it easy on myself, I'll split a single topic into three books.
Which is why ‘Black Belt Presentations' has three books—and so does Dartboard Pricing. Could it be one long book? Of course, but the split gives the reader some breathing space, and if you happen to reach the deadline and the project is unfinished, you can still deliver two books, and send the third one a week or two later.
Writing just a little every day, thinking about what you're writing—it's all part of the process.
No matter whether you use Gladwell's system of writing three-four paragraphs or a page or so a day, or whether you use mind maps, it's all the same. You're heading to the goal at a glacially measured pace.
Hurry it up, and you'll put enormous pressure on yourself and head right into the realm of Writer's Block. But even if you do, go back to the mind maps, or reduce the pace and you'll find yourself moving yet again.
No Writer's Block, no psychoanalysis. Sounds good, doesn't it?
Oh and before I go
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