Forging good titles in academic writing
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.
In academic writing, 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 (Canadian Journal 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)
Writing effective headings
Although similar, headings are not the same as titles. Headings head paragraphs and help structure a document. Effective headings make your paper easily scannable.
Common high level headings in dissertations and research papers are “Methods”, “Research results”, and “Discussion”. Lower level headings are often more descriptive.