An Editor’s Dilemma: Long Titles Kill Word Counts
Melanie Mannarino makes her case for more space.
Word counts rule my life—print and digital. As a print editor and writer, I am constantly readjusting (read: lowering) my expectations when it comes to how much text a two-page story contains. I get it: One of the ways print content can distinguish itself from digital content is with the use of powerful images and innovative layout design. The words need to make room for that. And as a digital editor and writer, I am aware of the short attention span of the user, of the need to reduce endless scroll. App content, especially, necessitates brevity (without sacrificing humor, entertainment, or service).
This is why I tear my hair out any time I see a lengthy book title. On The New York Times bestseller list right now are books like, “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst,” “The Boys In the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” and “Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operate.” I’m out of breath just typing those titles. Those three books just ate up 52 words of my 456-word post.
It gets tougher. When I quote an expert source for a piece, they often have professional credentials in addition to an author credit. Wonderful—it means they are qualified to comment—but add a job title, multiple professional degrees, and that cumbersome after-the-colon book title, and suddenly the only thing left to cut for word count is the substance of the quote itself. My next book will be called, “Make Melanie Annoyed: 15 Ways to Drive Her Nuts While She Cuts to Fit and Would Rather Devote the Space to Actual Information.”
I understand the need to rise above the constant noise, to have a book proclaim it’s value, rather than hint at it. And this is by no means a new phenomenon: My first book, published in 2000, was titled “The Boyfriend Clinic: The Final Word on Flirting, Dating, Guys, and Love.” Need I tell you that it was not, in fact, the final word on any of those matters? (Or that I was not a decision-maker when it came to the title?) But I think we can take a creative cue from books like “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” “Outliers: The Story of Success,” and “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” (total word count of all three books: 20). Let’s keep book titles short and snappy on the front end, and brief on the back end. We’re writers and editors after all—we’re up for the challenge.
And if all else fails, get the go-ahead from the copy editors to just cut everything after the colon.
Melanie Mannarino is a freelance editor and writer for media brands including Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Real Simple, Better Homes & Gardens, and Weight Watchers Magazine. She is currently the contributing health editor at Real Simple. Previously, she was the digital director of Shape.com, and prior to that the executive editor for WeightWatchers.com and Weight Watchers magazine. Melanie wrote “The Boyfriend Clinic: The Final Word on Flirting, Dating, Guys, and Love” while a senior editor at Seventeen. She co-wrote “The Truth About Girlfriends” with real-life editor pal Amy Fishbein.