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Nonfiction authors typically start writing chapter titles that are as vanilla as can be, but ultimately, you want to consider chapter titles that are engaging for the reader. At the same time, you don’t want your chapter titles to be so creative that someone looking at the list of contents (also known as the table of contents or just “Contents”) to have no clue what’s in your book!

Here’s a solution: You can use a clever chapter title followed by a subtitle that explains the concept a little more clearly.

In Cinematherapy, my coauthor Bev West and I had a chapter called: “I Hate My Life and I’m Moving to Bora Bora: Seeking Greener Pastures Movies.” True, you might not know what Seeking Greener Pastures Movies are, but when you look at all the chapter titles, you can see that each is around a particular theme: Mother Issues Movies, Martyr Syndrome Movies, and so on.

You can use the same trick for headers within the book. In Raising a Sensory Smart Child, one of the headers in the chapter on improving speech skills and picky eating reads “You Say Potato and I Say Topahhhhhhuuuduh”: Problems with Motor Planning”

Using an intriguing quotation within a chapter title or a header is a great way to be provocative and intriguing, but don’t sacrifice clarity. 

Writing a memoir? Often, memoir chapters don’t have titles and sections within chapters don’t have headers, but here’s your chance to get creative. You never know what title or header might grab someone’s attention. Think about taking an interesting image from a story you tell, such as “The Purple Rabbit” or “Twelve Pretzels.” Set up a dilemma or intrigue: “The Purple Rabbit’s Whereabouts” or “Twelve Pretzels and a Warning.” 

You might also use a quotation—I always loved the sound of “Bora Bora” and think that was the perfect word to use in our funny quote related to movies about seeking greener pastures and getting away from frustrating situations. Think about things you’ve said or a client has said that sum up a concept in an interesting way. Think of things you typically say to your followers and clients. 

chapter one chapter titles engaging nonfiction headers titles photo typewriter

 

You can also do a spin on a common saying or cliche. How about: “You Got This (Unless You Need to Freak Out First, In Which Case, Read This Chapter NOW)”?

Or, “Plays Shockingly Well with Others: Five Keys to Improve Your Collaboration Skills.” 

Which comes first, the clever section header or the section itself? You decide. But I think you’ll find it’s a good exercise to at least consider jazzing up your chapter and header titles.

Need some help with your book as you write it and set up your plan to get it published? Contact me about my services as a developmental editor, ghostwriter, and book publishing consultant.

 

guide to writing engaging chapter titles header titles

headers


If you’re writing a nonfiction book other than a memoir, you’ll need to break up your text with headers. Good headers are like signs on the highway that reassure you that you’re going in the right direction (“Chicago/O’Hare”), orient you (“Chicago 45 milesj”), and tell you when you need to switch roads (“Exit for Dundee Road”). If you’re going to start a new topic, you’ll want to signal that with a header that gives the reader a good sense of what the next section is about. Ideally, your headers will be somewhat provocative without being too mysterious, clear without being boring. “Recite Affirmations to Focus Your Mind” is much better as “Power Mantras for Overcoming the Monkey Mind.” (Of course, if you use the latter, you have to be certain that you explain what a “monkey mind” is.)

You’ll want a header to appear every three pages or so, sometimes more often. You’ll also want to mostly use A-heads, meaning, headers that all have the same weight and are styled the same way.

A Typical A-Head Style

Quite often, I style A-heads in boldface and italics, in the same size font as the type, with two spaces before it and one after it, as I’ve done here. If I wanted secondary heads, called “B-heads,” I’d make them look subordinate to the A-head by not using all the many tools for emphasis. If my A-head is boldfaced and italicized, and the the first letter of each significant word is capitalized, my B-head might look like:

Centered, Boldfaced but not italicized or capitalized B-head

OR

Centered, italicized but not boldfaced or capitalized B-head

Keep in mind that the subjects you encapsulate in B-heads have to make sense under the A-head. Think of the old college outline with its multilevel heads:

  1. Introduction and theme of paper
  2. Jane Eyre as an independent woman
    1. Her rebellion as a child adopted by another family
    2. Her defense of Helen at school
    3. Her refusal to teach at the school and pursuit of a governess position
    4. Rejecting Mr. Rochester’s “deal”

Adding a third tier of C-heads is often confusing, so try to stick with just A-heads and occasional B-heads. You can also use bulleted and numbered lists for material. In general, bulleted lists are in no particular order whereas numbered lists have items that must  be addressed in a specific order, such as Step 1, Step 2.

Spend some time looking at other nonfiction books in your genre and get a feel for how the books you find engaging and well-organized use subheads and lists effectively.