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About Writing Right: The Blog


I place little credence in someone who claims that chapter names aren't necessary anymore, as a few writers do. Quite the contrary: They can be of great importance both to the writer as he's working on developing a book and to the reader as he peruses the TOC page to decide whether or not to buy it on the spot or order it online.


Of my ninety published books, About Writing Right, a nonfiction how-to, features chapter names. So does my nonfiction bio, Wilma Mankiller. On the other hand, my novel, The Last Wild Orchid, has only title numbers and no names. But my short-story collection, Chi-Town Blues, does. For me, it all depends upon what feels "right" for that particular book. There is no universal preference.


As for your question, I have the consummate answer to how to come up with good chapter names. Brainstorm! Put something down, jot down a few alternatives that come to mind, and then decide which one works best for you. Rinse, dry, and repeat. It can take even the most creative writer nearly forever to come up with a single name that checks all the boxes.


When I was editor of a national monthly magazine in Chicago, my assistant and I had to come up with catchy titles for the five or six articles we ran each month. So, we'd pour a cup of coffee, close the office door, and get started. I'd come up with a potential title for an article we were scheduled to run, and he would suggest an alternative. I'd respond to that, and he'd do likewise. If, by the end of the day, we still didn't have anything that appealed to us, we'd start the process all over again the following day.


I recall that the absolute toughest title we ever came up with was for a lead article on the history of logging. As it turns out, there are more descriptive ways to describe an article on logging than by referring to its as "Logging's Long History." Far more. After four or five grueling days of banging our heads against the wall, trying on different titles to see how they fit, and starting all over again from scratch when we came up empty, we finally produced a title I love to this very day.


The logging article came to be called, quite poetically, "Those Hairy-Chested, Spike-Booted, Sawdust-eating Brush Rats." Although that moniker may not conjure up images of logging, it sure as hell sounds intriguing! Our readers loved it.


My approach to naming book chapters today is pretty much the same as it was articles back then. Now, though, I create a list, one potential chapter name below another. I put the list aside until it's no longer fresh in my mind (it helps to do something totally different in the interim), and I return to it later. Then I begin playing with each title, seeing if I can improve it by changing a word here, adding a word there, or creating some meter, rhyme, or alliteration. If nothing sounds right, I start all over again, taking a different slant.


That's how "Brush Rats" came to be. Instead of looking for a description synonymous with logging, we turned our search to a description of the actual loggers, themselves.


In your case, instead of searching for a way to describe Washington, D.C., for example ("The Nation's Capital" or "America's Home Town"), take a different tack. Look at who works there ("Lawmaker's Haven" or "Election Headquarters"). Or, perhaps play upon its history ("The House that George Built" or "The British Were Coming" or "The Burning of a Nation"). Or, examine any one of a number of different aspects for which the city is known, from its setting on the Potomac to its fine food, high cost of living, and swarming special-interest groups.


Keep playing on your theme by writing down potential chapter names and following up with variations. When you finally hit upon one you like, plug it into your book and see if you still like it when you glance at it the following day. If not, well, you know the routine well enough by now.


Hope this works as well for you as it does for me.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.

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