COJO 350 → WRITING RESOURCES → HOW TO WRITE A TITLE

David Ogilvy

The headline is the ticket on the meat. Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.

— David Ogilvy

David MacKenzie Ogilvy (1911–1999) has often been called “The Father of Advertising.” In 1962, Time called him “the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry.” He was known for a career of expanding the bounds of both creativity and morality in advertising.

How to write a title

In his book Guide to Writing Magazine Nonfiction, Michael Bugeja describes three kinds of titles and gives many examples, including some ways to think of words as you come up with a title.

This page will give you two step-by-step approaches on how to write various types of titles. The first is the skeleton approach, used for descriptive titles and subtitles. The second is called the seed approach. It works best for suspense titles and clever label titles.

The skeleton approach

What title would you write for a story with the following introduction? You have just four short words to do the job. Take a moment to think it through and jot down your.

The smell of death was overpowering the moment a relief worker cracked open one of the hospital chapel’s wooden doors. Inside, more than a dozen bodies lay motionless on low cots and on the ground, shrouded in white sheets. Here, a wisp of gray hair peeked out. There, a knee was flung akimbo. A pallid hand reached across a blue gown.
Within days, the grisly tableau became the focus of an investigation into what happened when the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina marooned Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans. The hurricane knocked out power and running water and sent the temperatures inside above 100 degrees. Still, investigators were surprised at the number of bodies in the makeshift morgue and were stunned when health care workers charged that a well-regarded doctor and two respected nurses had hastened the deaths of some patients by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs. Mortuary workers eventually carried 45 corpses from Memorial, more than from any comparable-size hospital in the drowned city.

The first step to writing a title is to know the topic and the theme. Authors often err by reaching for ideas that don’t relate to topic and theme.

The second step is to look for a skeleton of the topic. You identify the simplest form of the subject, verb and object in the main clause and keep them in the same order as they are in the story. You just aren’t picking out key words; you’re trying to write a scaled-down sentence that makes sense. By doing this, you are using the story’s structure to write the first draft. This first draft may be something you write out or just think through.

The full skeleton for this story would be something like:

After Katrina marooned a New Orleans hospital, a doctor and two nurses fall under suspicion of hastening deaths

Condense and patch approach

To illustrate this approach, let’s work through another example. What headline would you write for a story with the following story? You want it as short and punchy as possible. Start with the skeleton approach and see how far it can take us. Think it through and jot down your idea.

I am in the expensively furnished living room of Al Gilbertson, the creator of the “blue box.” Gilbertson is holding one of his shiny black-and-silver “blue boxes” comfortably in the palm of his hand, pointing out the thirteen little red push buttons sticking up from the console. He is dancing his fingers over the buttons, tapping out discordant beeping electronic jingles. He is trying to explain to me how his little blue box does nothing less than place the entire telephone system of the world, satellites, cables and all, at the service of the blue-box operator, free of charge.
“That’s what it does. Essentially it gives you the power of a super operator. You seize a tandem with this top button,” he presses the top button with his index finger and the blue box emits a high-pitched cheep, “and like that” — cheep goes the blue box again — “you control the phone company’s long-distance switching systems from your cute little Princess phone or any old pay phone. And you’ve got anonymity. An operator has to operate from a definite location: the phone company knows where she is and what she's doing. But with your beeper box, once you hop onto a trunk, say from a Holiday Inn 800 [toll-free] number, they don’t know where you are, or where you’re coming from, they don’t know how you slipped into their lines and popped up in that 800 number. They don’t even know anything illegal is going on. And you can obscure your origins through as many levels as you like. You can call next door by way of White Plains, then over to Liverpool by cable, and then back here by satellite. You can call yourself from one pay phone all the way around the world to a pay phone next to you. And you get your dime back too.”

The skeleton would go something like this: Al Gilbertson’s little blue box lets you exploit the whole phone system from your Princess phone.. To shorten this, we turn to the condense and patch approach.

Weigh each idea to see if it absolutely must be in the title. This is not always as easy as it seems. It requires good judgment and a thorough understanding of topic. You have to decide what ideas must be represented and which would be nice to represent if you have room.

At the same time you’re weighing each word’s value, you should be looking for ways to shorten ideas without losing meaning. Let’s take the ideas one at a time.

Little blue box is a must and can become blue box if you have to condense the idea. Phone system is a must, and you can’t get any shorter than that. Lets you exploit the whole phone system is stronger than from your Princess phone. You have to ask if you want to repeat the clever idea of Princess phone and dilute Al Gilbertson’s quote.

Now comes the moment of truth. You could liken this part to playing the parlor game “Lifeboat” in which you have to decide who in the boat deserves to live and who should be cast overboard for the betterment of the group. Without much context, the name Al Gilbertson could be left out.

So this might be our subtitle:

Blue box puts the whole phone system in your hands.

The seed approach

Now let’s come up with a clever title for the blue box story. The first step is to identify a word or idea that must be represented in the title. Bugeja gives several methods, such as alliteration, literary or cultural allusion, rhyme and others. These techniques provide a seed, the kernel of an idea out of which the title grows. So think of phone, and what ideas come to mind? Free associate: call, ring-ring, operator, dial up, dial tone, long distance. Here is one idea for a title:

Real Operators

What else can you do with operator? How about an allusion to an old song? Here is a title with our blurb:

Smooth Operators

Blue box puts the whole phone system in your hands.


No doubt you came up with other ideas for good titles. The possibilities are endless. What if you can find a seed but get stuck thinking of expressions? Turn to a good dictionary and look up telephone or operator or dial tone, then check for ideas from the definition. Or better yet, look for idioms listed at the end of the entries.

The secret to success with the seed approach is to keep in mind that you need just one good idea to make a good title and to realize that most of the expressions that come to mind will be bad ideas and should be discarded quickly. Don’t waste time trying to force an expression into your headline. Look for another idea that will fit naturally.

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COMMUNICATION AND JOURNALISM 350 | UNIVERSITY OF ST. THOMAS | © 2010
INSTRUCTOR: Michael O’Donnell | mjodonnell@stthomas.edu | 651-962-5281