The title is the first thing your reader will see, and most readers will make their first judgements of your work based on it. For this reason, it’s important to think about your titles carefully.
The most basic things to remember are that your title should be informative, striking, and appropriate. This article briefly discusses these titular qualities, turns to some title templates and examples, and then offers some tips and common title-pitfalls.
Informative, Striking, Appropriate
Your title should, above all else, convey the topic of your paper. In other words, no matter how witty, clever, original, or otherwise appealing your title may be, it fails if it is not informative.
Decide whether you’ve given a sense of the paper’s topic and claims by comparing your title’s content to the most important aspect(s) of your dissertation statement or hypothesis and conclusions.
A striking title is one that entices your audience to read, so know your audience’s tastes.
The analogy of cultivating sexual attraction in a prospective mate is useful here: some audiences will be enticed by a title’s edginess (as with, for example, V. Alneng’s “‘What the Fuck is a Vietnam?’ Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of [the] Vietnam [War],” published in Critique on Anthropology); others will almost always prefer a more straightforward title (as with J.C. Henderson’s “War as a tourist attraction: The case of Vietnam,” published in the International Journal of Tourism Research).
You should be able to gauge how edgy your title can be by the tone of your discipline or the publication you’re submitting to, and your main concern should be forming a title that appeals to your readers’ specific tastes.
Consider also that a title that highlights the paper’s fresh insights will often be striking.
An endocrinologist, for example, might become very excited upon seeing the collaboratively authored article “Comparison of the effects on glycaemic control and β-cell function in newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes patients of treatment with exenatide, insulin or pioglitazone: A multicentre randomized parallel-group trial,” published in 2015 in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
This rather long title is more acceptable in the sciences, where what readers tend to find provocative in a title is the degree to which it reveals the paper’s specifics.
Ensuring that your title is appropriate in a way of making sure not only that your audience understands it, but also that its appeal contributes to its meaning. To make sure the title will be understood, you need to consider how familiar your research topic will be to your audience.
In an academic essay, you can use highly technical terms in your title, but generally avoid terms that the average well-read person in your discipline might not know.
In any writing that has a broad audience, titles need to avoid language that is too sophisticated; a news article, for example, should be easily understood by all.
As a second consideration of appropriateness, make sure that your title does not entice without substance.
The title of Alneng’s paper, for example, does not use “fuck” merely to shock and therefore entice the reader; the uncommon use of a swearword here helps convey the topic of the article: more or less vulgar representations of Vietnam.
The same is true for other striking titles, such as Nancy Tuana’s “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance,” published in Hypatia.
The title’s sexually charged play on words (“coming to understand”) hooks the audience, but is not merely a hook. The pun is directly relevant to the essay’s argument, which is that sexual pleasure offers an important form of knowledge.
- Use key terms. Find words that your audience can easily identify as markers of the topic matter. These will include, for example, terms that convey the field of research, central concepts, or subjects of study.
- Identify the context (sometimes called “the location”). By context, I mean the source or the setting of the discussion, depending on discipline. In a history paper this might be a certain century or era; in literary studies a certain book or author; and in the sciences an organism or compound.
The following is a list of title formats, with examples of each. I’ve given the names of the publications in brackets to give a sense of how different disciplines treat titles.
Note that these are not mutually exclusive patterns (i.e. it’s possible to have various combinations; e.g. General & interesting: Informative & specific). Note also that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.
- Striking: Informative – The Specter of Wall Street: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the Language of Commodities (American Literature)
- Informative: Striking – Carbon capture and storage: How green can black be? (Science)
- General: Specific – The issues of the sixties: An exploratory study in the dynamics of public opinion (Public Opinion Quarterly)
- “Quotation”: Discussion (social studies) – “I’d rather not talk about it”: Adolescents’ and young adults’ use of topic avoidance in stepfamilies (Journal of Applied Communication Research)
- “Quotation”: Discussion (literary studies) – “I Would Prefer Not To”: Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby and the Potentiality of the Law (Law and Critique)
- Simple and precise – Methodological issues in the use of Tsimshian oral Traditions (Adawx) in Archaeology (CanadianJournal of Archaeology)
- Topic: Method – Mortality in sleep apnea patients: A multivariate analysis of risk factors (Sleep)
- Topic: Significance – LC3 binds externalized cardiolipin on injured mitochondria to signal mitophagy in neurons: Implications for Parkinson disease (Autophagy)
- Technical and very specific – Single-shot quantum nondemolition measurement of a quantum-dot electron spin using cavity exciton-polaritons (Physical Review)
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .—John Donne
love and theft
Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.
The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?
“When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” The line comes from Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach’s blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel’s long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth — to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience — in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into “Absolutely Sweet Marie”? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?
Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan’s music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan’s songs. Lott’s title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg — a series of nested references to Dylan’s own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan’s newest record, Modern Times. Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.
The same might be said of all art. I realized this forcefully when one day I went looking for the John Donne passage quoted above. I know the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn’t in the book. It’s alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book, but it isn’t reprinted. So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins but without attribution. Unfortunately, the line was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the website of the Yale library, I found that most of its books don’t yet exist as computer text. As a last-ditch effort I searched the seemingly more obscure phrase “every chapter must be so translated.” The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because someone who loves Donne had posted it on his homepage. The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a website and back to a book. Then again, those words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title.
Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.
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