On opaque titles

19 October 2020
19 Oct 2020

In the six years since I’ve started blogging regularly on the Web, my philosophy on titles have barely changed. I use opaque titles, at least on my main blog where I do the bulk of my longform writing. My titles often tend to be 2-3 words long, and symbolic, where you wouldn’t really know what the title meant until you read the post itself. Compared to the more popular writing style of self-explanatory titles that are complete thoughts or questions, I think this is worth explaining.

If you’re a writer in the business of efficiently delivering information to your readers, it makes a lot of sense for the title to be a complete thought – probably your thesis behind a piece, or your primary conclusion. Likewise, if you’re in the business of attracting strangers to read your piece out of curiosity, it makes sense to create a title that asks a compelling question or irresistible mystery. I think both of these approaches are common, especially in the business world. I’ve even written some of these kinds of pieces myself, for example, “Interesting things about the Lua interpreter” or “Experiments with word and letter frequencies in writing.” These posts are meant to deliver facts, and the title tells you what you can expect to find inside.

But most of the time, I’m not engaged in delivering facts or in attracting strangers to new pieces. As a writer, I care about two things: writing something people will come back to read and readily recommend to others, and doing so consistently. And if I can do that, I think it affords me the freedom to reclaim the title space of my writing as artistic real estate, rather than a headline at the whim of marketing best practices.

If I can be a writer people come back to with expectation of consistent quality, I don’t have to use the title to compel people to read – that responsibility is relegated to all of my previous posts. Instead, I can choose a title that I think best rounds out the post, or choose a symbolic idea or metaphor that I think forms the core of the blog post. The title becomes a part of the text, instead of supporting material.

This artistic license over the title lets me write posts called “Multidimensional tactility” and “Distance traveled” and “Price of purpose” and “Finding it.” These titles won’t work on their own, but they don’t have to. They’re a part of the post, not headlines or ledes. I can afford to be opaque, if I do my job right.

Quality and consistency are the two most significant traits of writing, and of writers. When we resort to titles to be read, I think we’re partly acknowledging that we’re not confident in the writing itself to speak and to attract new readers. There’s an implication in a flashy title that the title is larger than the post. I don’t want that – I want the title to be the tip of the iceberg, and I want to be confident enough in my words that I won’t feel compelled to let my titles market my writing on behalf of my own words.

Plato’s Republic and Apology. Marx’s Capital. Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Thiel’s Zero to One. There’s a pantheon of great literature whose title is merely a label, where the writing ranks beyond its title. They stand in startling contrast to How to Win Friends and Influence People or The High Growth Handbook. Not to disparage great books of the second kind, but I think this is proof enough for me that if the underlying ideas are good, and the text is well-written, the title becomes little more than a name. And if a title is to become a name for my words, why not pick one I love, rather than pick one to cater to the whims of strangers' eyes?

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