I’m finishing a book at the moment, and I recently discovered that I hate a chapter title. Hate it. Loathe it. Despise it. Hate hate hate it. Were it alive, I would kill it, then do everything in my power to bring it back to life, just so I could kill it again.

It’s not all that bad, actually: “Gravity as an Equal.” It’s been around forever, at least in terms of my writing this book. On the bulletin board that faces my desk, it’s in fading pencil on some of the earliest notes and outlines in the writing process, dating back several years, to when the book was in its gestational stage. The book is about gravity, and the chapter concerns a period in history when people came to accept as a fact the objectively bizarre conception of gravity as a force acting across a distance, so the title made sense. “Gravity as an Equal” survived dozens of partial and full drafts of the chapter, several complete drafts of the book, and now a draft that had gone through copyediting before winding up back on my desk.

But one day this past week, while going through the copyedited draft, I identified a problem several chapters earlier—Chapter Two. I had titled that chapter “Gravity in Motion,” and it did indeed contain some material about matter in motion. But I saw now that among that material were several passages I had wedged into the chapter mostly because their content matched the title—material, I suddenly realized, that more properly belonged in the following chapter. So maybe, I thought, I should move thatmaterial to Chapter Three, call that chapter“Gravity in Motion,” and—

—and before I could complete that thought the book rearranged itself. Boom, boom, boom: Pieces fell into place. Passages flew from one chapter to another, inserting themselves into sections where, I saw now, they had always belonged, while chapter titles changed to reflect all this newfound thematic clarity. Among the casualties was “Gravity as an Equal.”

The moment I got rid of it was the moment I came to hate it. I saw now not only that it wasn’t right but that it had never been right, for any number of reasons that aren’t worth listing here.

I’m not saying that if the book were published with a Chapter Five called “Gravity as an Equal” it automatically would be an artistic abomination. Nobody would be any the wiser, including myself. The chapter title would seem “right” because, well, hadn’t it survived all those revisions of drafts of individual chapters as well as drafts of the manuscript as a whole? The chapter title didn’t need to change. The integrity of the book didn’t depend on its excision.

But my own understanding of the book did.

“An hour ago,” I emailed the copy editor, “I retitled several chapters to reflect my new appreciation of where their foci are”—and then I listed the old and new titles side by side. “These shifts don’t necessarily presage huge changes in text. But they do help me micro-edit.” The difference between the two titles transformed my understanding of my own work. For the first time I realized what I’d been trying to say for the past two or three or four years, ever since I began pinning ideas to my bulletin board.

I’m always telling my students that revising is writing.Often I sense their wariness—and who can blame them? I’m giving them an abstract notion and hoping they’ll believe me. From now on, though, I’ll be able to draw upon a concrete example.

“Oh, excellent job of retitling!” the copyeditor wrote back. “Really excellent.”

The new chapter title is “Gravity as a Fact,” and I think I’m in love.

What’s in a Title
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Richard Panek

A Guggenheim Fellow in science writing, Richard Panek is most recently the author of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, which won the 2012 Science Communication award from the American Institute of Physics, and the co-author, with Temple Grandin, of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, a New York Times best-seller and the recipient of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2013. He also wrote the National Geographic giant-format movie Robots 3D, now playing in museum theaters across the country. His educational and professional background is in both journalism and fiction, disciplines he combines in trying to illuminate the history and philosophy of science even for readers who, like himself before he begins his research, would know little or nothing about the topic at hand.

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4 thoughts on “What’s in a Title

  • December 10, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks Richard – your reflections helped remind me of how all things fall into place, if you keep working, and let them. And your comment – revising IS writing – hit home. Gracias!

    • December 10, 2018 at 11:28 pm

      Thank you, Donna. So glad that lesson resonated. De nada!

  • December 10, 2018 at 10:00 am

    I love this, Richard. I’ve had the same experience of sudden clarity at the tail end of revision. Sometimes it just takes that long to fully digest the substance and meaning of the work!
    Thank you.

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