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Flipping through the contents of various magazines and essay collections, certain titles strike me. Here is an essay on cosmology by Isaac Asimov, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.” Here is a piece on baseball history by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myth of Cooperstown.” Here is one from John McPhee, “Reading the River.”

I like titles that are, first and foremost, memorable, even if their relationship to the work over which they perch is obscure. If that work is good, if it resonates, the titles will stick. Whenever I read a eulogy of the physical book, for instance, Isaac Asimov’s masterful essay, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” comes to mind, an essay about the evolution of a book from a physical to a digital device and beyond. The word “book” appears nowhere in the title.

It seems to me that in the print world, titles helps set the tone for a piece even when they don’t describe the content therein.


Tone seems tertiary for titles on the Internet. Before tone comes description and before description comes flash. Access and audience size are vastly magnified on the Internet. Competition for what is gruesomely referred to as “eyeballs” follows. The need to pluck those eyeballs from their sockets has sapped much of the hope and possibility I saw in the Internet when I first began exploring there in late 1994. Titles are one obvious symptom.

First there are the listicles: “The 5 Apps…”, “The 10 Most Intriguing…”, “15 Tips for…” These titles lack tone, but I can’t blame writers for taking this approach; I’ve done it myself. It is a symptom of the environment we work in.

There are what I call “omniscient” titles. “15 [Fill in the Blank] Tips Most Users Don’t Know.” Or “Too Many [Blank] Is Not Your Problem.” Or “6 [Blank] You Must Do In Your Lifetime.” Has the writer surveyed all users? Of course not. Does the writer know your tastes? Unlikely. Does the writer know if you have already done any of things on their list? Almost certainly not.


I prefer titles that set the tone of the piece. I’ve tried to to follow this practice in titles for my fiction. I’ve also tried to follow it in titles for my nonfiction. I was once asked to change the title of a story to avoid confusion with another story, and I was happy to oblige. Otherwise, all of my fiction retained the titles I gave the pieces. That wasn’t always the case with nonfiction. If the nonfiction appeared in a print magazine, it generally kept the title I gave it. If the title appeared online, it was frequently changed to something more flashy and descriptive.

Looking back through the posts on the blog, I can see attempts across the spectrum. There was a time when the blog was at its peak readership where I indulged in eyeball scooping. I’m not proud of that. But I am no longer out for eyeballs and acknowledging that grants a sense of relief. Just as every person has their name–the one that they identify with—so every piece I write has a title that is just right for it.

Perhaps this piece serves as an example of what I mean. I’d originally called it “Tertiary Tones for Titles,” but that didn’t set the right tone. I called it “Eyeball Plucking,” but that was clearly ironic. I settled on “Matchmaking” because it is what I believe I try to do with my titles: find the perfect match (in tone and description) with the underlying work.

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