Jessica Love’s last Psycho Babble column appeared on Oct. 2, 2014. We are re-posting several of our favorite columns, including this one, published on Nov. 7, 2013.
I’d like to write a book some day, a nonfiction book, probably about cognitive science. This book will have a single-word title like Outliers or Quiet or Flow, followed by a long subtitle that will teach you what the title means. The more instructive my subtitle, the shorter my title can be. Perhaps I will be the one to write !: The astonishing psychology of surprise. Or : Spaces between words and other linguistic innovations.
Still, my favorites titles are the ones that span an entire sentence. These titles are not about something so much as something: hard-won truths, arranged neatly down a skinny spine. From Flannery O’Connor I learn that A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge; from Ray Bradbury that Something Wicked This Way Comes and from Lee K. Abbott that The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting. In By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, Paulo Coelho pushes the straight-faced limits of the convention: if the title went on any longer we’d have When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home.
Titling trends—the good, the bad, and the maddening—have been on my mind of late thanks to a new player in the online publishing business: Upworthy, a website that slaps new headlines on feel-good stories available elsewhere and does its damnedest to make them go viral. The site takes an almost scientific approach to virality: headlines are tested exhaustively, 25 versions of each pitted against one another in a grand battle for clicks. The best titles, Upworthy has learned, rely on a “curiosity gap”: they’re not too vague, but they’re not going to give away the punch line either—or even, really, much of the joke. We’re left to click on titles like Mitt Romney Accidentally Confronts A Gay Veteran; Awesomeness Ensues and 9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.
And click we do. This past August Upworthy was the fifth biggest publisher on Facebook—one place ahead of The New York Times. Not surprisingly, other outlets, even prestigious ones, have taken notice. During the government shutdown, The New Republic ran Watch This for 22 Seconds and You’ll See Why Obama Can’t Give an Inch.
What’s odd about the “curiosity gap” is that it represents an about-face on the last tenet of good titling: SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Nobody, needless to say, is ever going to enter “What to watch to see why Obama can’t give an inch” into a search box. And of course SEO is what not long ago dealt a near-death blow to the genre of “clever” titles favored by many daily newspapers. “The only really creative opportunity copy editors had was writing headlines, and they took it seriously,” as Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten put it. (Though the New York Post, home of the most pun-tastic headline of all time, Headless Body in Topless Bar, remains committed. Earlier this year, Weiner’s Second Coming! graced its front page.)
But the search for the perfect, which is to say the most marketable, title is a long-running experiment. Perhaps the earliest “clickbait” took the form of pamphlets, often sold by printers to fund the publication of more prestigious, and expensive, books. Titles rarely shied away from sensationalism—or, refreshingly, punch lines. Consider this 16th-century title:
A true and most dreadfull discourse of a woman possessed with the Deuill who in the likenesse of a headlesse beare fetched her out of her bedd, and in the presence of seuen persons, most straungely roulled her thorow three chambers, and doune a high paire of staiers, on the fower and twentie of May last. 1584. At Dichet in Sommersetshire. A matter as miraculous as euer was seen in our time.
Hard to argue with that.