The Challenge of Writing Good Book Titles and Feature Story Headlines

John le Carre’s next novel, his 25th, will be published next October. The book’s arguably uninteresting title?

Agent Running in the Field.

The titles of novels, like the heds on feature stories, are a challenge for editors. One famous writer-editor disagreement was between author F. Scott Fitzgerald and book editor Max Perkins. After Fitzgerald finished his most famous novel he wanted the title to be Trimalchio in West Egg.

After much discussion, Perkins convinced Fitzgerald that Trimalchio in West Egg was too vague, uninteresting, and hard to pronounce and the book became The Great Gatsby.

Agent Running in the Field somehow doesn’t sound like the title of a book by an author of such bestsellers as:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Our Kind of Traitor
The Honourable Schoolboy

A Perfect Spy
Smiley’s People

A Murder of Quality
The Naive and Sentimental Lover

An editor might guess that Agent Running in the Field was the author’s choice (he turns 88 next year) and after 24 previous best-sellers the Viking editors let him have his way.

That said, there are no rules for book titles and feature story heds. What has a ring to it and seems somewhat interesting? Some examples:

To Kill a Mockingbird—
intriguing but what’s it about? In the same category: Gone With the Wind. Charlotte’s Web. One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Catcher in the Rye.

Intriguing and a little clearer: Bonfire of the Vanities. The Lord of the Rings. And Then There Were None. The Da Vinci Code. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The Eagle Has Landed.

At the Washingtonian,
the heds on stories that won National Magazine Awards:

The Saving of the President (about President Reagan’s medical treatment after he was shot by John Hinckley).

Like Something the Lord Made (about an African-American laboratory worker who helped physicians devise life-saving surgical techniques at Johns Hopkins Hospital).

Where Have All the Warriors Gone? (about how the Pentagon became more interested in bureaucratic warfare than actual warfare).

Life and Death on the Fast Track (about a train crash with dramatic rescue stories).

How to Save Your Life (about finding Washington’s best emergency care).

On one story, a National Magazine Award finalist, I spent two days trying to come up with an appropriate and intriguing headline.

It was the story of Paul Adkins, a thoracic surgeon who looked at an x-ray of his chest and realized that he’d be dead within a year from lung cancer. Finally, in the Bible, I found a line from Corinthians that seemed to match the emotion of the story:

Hope All Things, Endure All Things



  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS — Thomas Powers’ biography of Richard Helms

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