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choose a title for a memoir

How to Choose a Title for A Memoir

Sometimes writers ask me to help them choose a title for a memoir. Because I have worked with them, usually as their coach or editor and know their story, I am in a position to brainstorm with them to come up with a decent —and sometimes even great—title for a book.

There are many possibilities available to a writer, but one thing is certain: a writer must choose a title for a memoir strategically.  It is a marketing opportunity. The name of your book can promote sales.

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Here are some guidelines I use to generate a memoir title—for my own titles or for a client. I hope they prove helpful to you, too.

When you choose a title for a memoir, it’s about the reader not about the writer.

When a title is good, it refers to something the reader will resonate with without any knowledge of the writer or even of the memoir. A good title brings the reader to the book; it “snookers” her/him to pick the book up and possibly buy it.

Think of your title as a billboard that will bring your book to the attention of a reader. There are two parts to most titles: a main title and a subtitle. The main title can be a touch fanciful but the subtitle must present the book contents.

A good title makes use of both the main title and the subtitle.

Where to look to choose a title for a memoir—or a subtitle

  • A saying or proverb that encapsulated the book’s theme: All the King’s Men
  • A repeated thought from the book. We Were Not Spoiled stems from my mother saying many times, “I can tell you we were not spoiled!”
  • Business Boy to Business Man is the story of a man who always wanted to be a businessman—ever since he was a boy.
  • A reference to a poem or song the reader is likely to be aware of—either in the positive or in the negative: No Sounds of Silence in The Family works because there are few people who do not know the reference to the Simon and Garfunkle song. A reference to something esoteric does not generally entice a reader, unless the wording itself is commanding separate from the reference.

The main title

The main title of a memoir can be more poetic, more vague. It will draw a reader in by its intrigue, but I do not believe it is enough to sell a book. For that, you need the subtitle.

What is the book about? Here are some titles from our own clients at The Memoir Network.

  • Business Boy to Business Man. We did not feel that this title needed a subtitle.
  • In Their Own Words is a collection of stories and it did need a subtitle [Memoirs of the Members of St George Greek Orthodox Church/ Keene, New Hampshire] as the title did not “give away” what the book was about.
  • Coal Fields to Oil Fields and Beyond was made clear by the subtitle: A Life in Pursuit of All I could Be
  • We Were Not Spoiled shows four children on the cover, but what is it about? The subtle draws its intended audience in: A Franco Memoir

The subtitle

The subtitle eliminates any ambiguity the title may have.

  • What is your ideal reader struggling with? Where is his pain? Place a word or two that describes that pain into the title—or more probably into the subtitle: A Story of Losing a Spouse. Widows and widowers will be immediately attracted.
  • What outcome will the reader achieve when she reads this book? How I dealt with a Crippling Disease and How You Can, Too. Anyone with a crippling disease who is endeavoring to live with it will be drawn to this subtitle.
  • How can you involve the reader’s curiosity? Some of the Worst Things You Can Do For Your Health. Most people are interested in improving their health.
  • What affiliation can you solicit from the reader? For my mother’s memoir We Were Not Spoiled, I chose the subtitle: A Franco Memoir Any person in our ethnic group would intuit immediately that the memoir was possibly of interest.

As you choose a title for a memoir, think: marketing opportunity!

When you choose a title for a memoir, you are engaging in a marketing opportunity. Certainly for the reader, it is often her initial contact with you. Without maximizing on marketing opportunities of which the title is often the first, an author remains without readers. Most of us do not want this.

Since all memoirs are about “me,” if you choose a title for a memoir like “Memories of Me,” what does that add to the reader’s sense of what s/he might expect? Many things are competing for the reader’s attention, a title needs to be a player in the competition. “Memories of a Slave Girl” is certainly more captivating.

Can you see why the author of Felice’s Worlds changed his title to Art of a Jewish Woman: The True Story of How a Penniless Holocaust Escapee Became an Influential Modern Art Connoisseur?

A writer must choose a title for a memoir strategically. Do you have favorite titles? Please share them below.

Whatever you do today, write a bit on your memoir.

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5 Responses to How to Choose a Title for A Memoir

  1. Avatar
    Charlotte Hyatt February 23, 2018 at 11:08 PM #

    I am glad to see this. I want to have a meaningful title, something that will be meaningful both myself and the reader. I agree, it is the reader’s interest and attention you want to catch.

    I have been thinking of “3-wheeled Annie – life with Ataxia! Hopefully, people will want to know what that is.

  2. Avatar
    Denis Ledoux March 3, 2018 at 12:16 PM #

    I would say there is too much that is unknown in your title. Enlist the empathy of the reader more.

    Something better might be: Saving Annie / Making a Life after Ataxia or Ataxia Needn’t Destroy Your Life/ How One Woman Coped with Degenerative Nerve Disease.

    In a sense, your title has to be a little story in itself. Better than evoking a thought, it ought to evoke a feeling.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Avatar
    Charlotte Hyatt July 16, 2018 at 9:57 PM #

    Thanks Denis. That is more engaging.

    I have not disciplined myself to the 30 minutes a day (or whatever time frame I decide on) I need to feel productive. I am to old to be a “work in progress”, but I am. The book series won’t leave me alone so I HAVE to get it down on paper and out of my head.

  4. Avatar
    Rennie June 17, 2019 at 1:07 PM #

    Do you always recommend a sub-title?

    I am writing “The moon for Yemsi” – story of my adopted son, legally blind, and we spent months looking for the moon until he
    was finally able to see it.
    Juxtaposed to the search for permanence and peace for him.

  5. Avatar
    Denis Ledoux June 17, 2019 at 6:50 PM #

    Rennie, Lovely concept for your memoir.

    I do usually have a subtitle as I like the clarity it creates for its intended audience. Our books generally address specific audiences, and a subtitle make sit clear which audience we are focused on. My mother’s memoir mentioned above had a title that I loved but it did not say to its audience, “Hey this is for you!’ My subtitle said just that. To quote from above:

    “For my mother’s memoir We Were Not Spoiled, I chose the subtitle: A Franco Memoir. Any person in our ethnic group would intuit immediately that this memoir was possibly of interest.”

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