Your Memoir Needs an Outstanding Subtitle

By Linda K. Thomas
Linda K. Thomas

Originally posted at Spiritual Memoirs 101. Re-posted by permission.

Have you noticed that we seldom find a subtitle on a novel? It seems that subtitles belong to the realm of non-fiction—and what a gift someone gave us when he or she invented subtitles. (A subtitle follows a title, and the two are separated by a colon.)

Your memoir’s subtitle can help accomplish your
title’s goals, which are to: 
  • establish a distinct identity for your memoir,
  • catch potential readers’ attention, 
  • entice them to buy your book, 
  • and read it when they get home, 
  • and recommend it to their friends.
A subtitle explains—illuminates, sheds light on—a book’s title.

A good subtitle elaborates on a title and:
  • tells potential readers how your book is different from all others,
  • hints at what a reader will find within the book, 
  • expands, explains, and entices, 
  • and might allude to secrets within.
Look at these titles without their subtitles:

What Remains

A Long Way Gone
Thin Places

Thirteen Days

Falling Awake

Did they intrigue you and make you want to buy them? Do you have a good idea what they’re about? Probably not.

Now look at them with their subtitles, below, and notice how much more they reveal the book’s contents:

What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love, by Carole Radziwill

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah

Thin Places: A Memoir, by Mary DeMuth

Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Robert F. Kennedy

Falling Awake: An America Woman Gets a Grip on the Whole Changing World One Essay at a Time, by Mary Lou Sanelli

Review the goals of a title (bulleted above). Do the subtitles help accomplish those goals? I say yes. How about you?

How long or short should a subtitle be? Mary DeMuth’s subtitle is two words, “A Memoir.” Mary Lou Sanelli’s is a whopping 16 words long. I’m not aware of “rules” for how long or short a good subtitle should be, but avoid unnecessary wordiness.

Here are tips for crafting a strong title/subtitle:
  • Choose an easy-to-understand title.
  • Choose an easy-to-pronounce title. 
  • Choose an easy-to-remember title. 
  • Consider the benefits of a short, crisp title. 
  • Witty can be good—if it really works. 
  • Even if your title isn’t short, be concise: Make sure every word needs to be there. 
  • Beta readers (or others who have helped with your manuscript) might suggest titles. Brainstorm with them. 
  • Read your title aloud. How does it sound? (See last Thursday’s blog post on the art part of crafting titles.) 
  • Choose a title that feels just right to you—because it will stick with you for a long time!
Take a few minutes to read Susan Kendrick’s blog post, “What Makes a Good Subtitle and How Long Should it Be?” It’s packed with helpful info.

Keep in mind that if a traditional publishing house will publish your memoir, a lot of people there will have a say in your memoir’s title.

On the other hand, if you self-publish, or if you make only a few copies at the office supply store for family and friends, you get to choose your title.

Either way, work hard to create an excellent title.

How have you struggled with subtitles? What subtitles have you found most interesting? Most helpful in your writing? 

Linda Thomas teaches memoir writing based on principles of Deuteronomy 4:9, which tells us to always remember—and never forget—what we’ve seen God do for us, and to be sure to tell our children and grandchildren. She and her husband Dave are former Bible translators. Linda is author of  Grandma’s Letters from Africa, a memoir about her first four years in Africa.

Photo courtesy Linda Thomas.


  1. Great post, Linda! I think the subtitle goes a long way in explaining something more about what the book covers.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments, Sherrey. I hope you'll share with us your memoir's title and subtitle, even if it's still a work in progress. :) Keep up the good work!