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July 15, 2010

Five Steps to a Great Title

Chelsea blogby Chelsea Lee

 You’ve burned through the midnight oil. You’ve written the last word, double-, nay, triple-checked the reference list, and as the sun clambers over the windowsill you face the last remaining question: What to call this work of staggering genius? You are tempted to play the facetious card and call your paper “A Study of the Effects of Red Bull on a Person's Ability to Form Coherent Sentences,” but the long-term implications of such a title for your academic success give you pause. What else, then, shall suffice?

The title of your paper is incredibly important. A paper’s title not only sets readers’ expectations for what the paper will be about but may also determine whether it gets read at all—or with how much trepidation versus excitement it is greeted.

Below are five general principles that, if followed, will produce a great title: 

  1. A great title summarizes the main idea of the paper. Your title should identify the key issues under investigation as well as how they relate to each other. The title “The Effects of Transformed Letters on Reading Speed” achieves this goal, whereas the title “Transformed Letters and Reading Speed” identifies the elements but misses the relationship.
  2. A great title has a length of 12 words or fewer. If your attempts to create a summarizing title have produced a five-line manifesto, try to pare it down to the essentials. Keep in mind that 12 words is a guideline, not a hard ceiling.
  3. A great title includes only words that contribute meaning. Phrases such as “A Study of,” “An Experimental Investigation of,” or “The Results of” are like empty calories (not unlike most of what’s in that Red Bull...). Make your title easier to digest by cutting the fat. “The Results of a Study of The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Plant Growth” can slim down to “The Effects of HCover of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Philip K. Dick. Image retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DoAndroidsDream.png, reproduced for scholarly purposes onlyeavy Metal Music on Plant Growth” or even the jazzier “How Heavy Metal Music Stimulates Plant Growth.”
  4. A great title gives away the ending. If your title is in the form of a yes–no question, try rephrasing it so that the question is answered or the answer at least alluded to. This primes the reader for deeper comprehension. If Philip K. Dick had written for an academic audience, you might be perusing Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Empathy in Nonhuman Species before bed tonight. (Click the image of the book cover at the right to read about his actual book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.)
  5. A great title says it with style. Academic writing must be precise, but it needn’t be fusty. Consider these titles of real published psychology articles: “The Unicorn, the Normal Curve, and Other Improbable Creatures” (Micceri, 1989, Psychological Bulletin) and “Pride, Prejudice, and Ambivalence: Toward a Unified Theory of Race and Ethnicity” (Markus, 2008, American Psychologist). These titles pique readers’ interest while also conveying essential information about the content of the article. 

Armed with these principles, you are now ready to give your next paper a great title. You can also read more about titles in the Publication Manual in section 2.01 (p. 23).

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