March 4

Does your title catch the reader’s eyes?

When a reader searches through a database or a reference sheet, their eyes are probably skimming quite quickly through all the titles. Does your title catch the eyes of those readers? Or do their eyes skim right on by? If your title is “catchy,” does the title provide clarity or confusion?
Titles are probably one of the most important parts of getting a typical reader to take a look at your abstract. Readers generally approach scholarly and non-fiction articles in this way: take in the title, and if the title's interesting if interesting, then skim the abstract, and, if still interested, then glance through the introduction, maybe some methods, and the conclusion. At that point, if you have convinced the reader that your article is worthwhile, only then will the reader actually dive into your entire article.

Your average, hum-drum scholarly author is usually straightforward and relentlessly to-the-point.

Knight, Kyle W. and Benjamin L. Messer. 2012. “Environmental Concern in Cross‐National Perspective: The Effects of Affluence, Environmental Degradation, and World Society.” Social Science Quarterly, 93(2) 521-537.

The reader knows exactly what this about, and if s/he is looking specifically for your article, s/he'll find it, that's for sure. Will the title catch any other readers, though? Trust me, the abstract isn't any better, either. I'm mildly interested, and I couldn't even bring myself to click, “Full PDF.” Imagine all the other readers that got away.

I'm not trying criticize. Heck, look at my CV under the “About” tab. The title of my own master's paper was,”Cross-national comparison of drug laws and prevalence.” Yawn. I think I fell asleep while writing it, which is why I didn't even bother with a semi-colon and subtitle.

I'll be honest, though. I didn't even like that research, and I sure didn't think it was going to change anyone's world, let alone the world. My boring title was like an admission of defeat, my white flag of meaninglessness.

What does your title say about what you believe about your own research?

As authors, we want to expand our influence.
Otherwise, why are we even writing?

If we only engage readers who are already in our sub-field, looking for articles about our research topic already, what a very small impact we will have on the world. If we want to acquire new readers and bring in new lines of thought, we need to employ a bit of marketing, so to speak.

Now, I know the idea of marketing our articles may sound a bit beneath some scholars, who tend to think that an article should only talk to their sub-field anyway. That's fine. If you're writing is boring and you like it that way, please, be my guest.

If you want your research or article or ideas to have a chance at changing the world, even in some small way, though, you'll need to catch new eyes. When those readers are skimming database search results and references, you want them to stumble upon you. You want to change those reader's lives because they read your article.

There is a “catchier” way to write a title.

Use the tradition of the semi-colon to your advantage. On the first part of the title, use something that will make the reader's eyes pause, something a little familiar or a little strange, unexpected. Then, in the second part of the title, explain how the first part of the title relates to the research.

Schwalbe, Michael. 2012. “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.” Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 41(2), 215-217.

In Schwalbe's title, he catches the reader's eye with the familiar but unexpected phrase, “Manning Up,” which he then relates to his research. Plus, he gives us a strong, unequivocal argument that women's empowerment is emasculating men. As I reader, I think, “Really? How did you prove that, Mr. Schwalbe?” So, I want to read it to find out. Granted, the title is pretty vague what methodology he's using, or even what field he's engaging, so he may loose some readers, who think the article will be fluffy or irrelevant to them. Still, it'll catch a good number of readers.

Another example:
Jensen, Gary and Ashley Thompson. 2008. “'Out of the Broom Closet': The Social Ecology of American Wicca.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(4), 753-766.

I'll go ahead and disclose that Gary Jensen was my advisor in my thesis, and I always thought he came up with great titles. (Clearly, he let me go my own way on my title.) You know why he has great titles?

He thinks about the title, from the beginning of the writing process.

Prof. Jensen would laugh and say, “A good title is what makes writing the article fun. If you have a good title, you want to write the article.”

Now, that's not to say that you have to have the perfect title from the very beginning, but maybe starting thinking about it earlier. Don't just slap it on right before you hit print.

That title is going to stay on your CV forever, and you'd better like it.

What about you?
Do you have any favorite titles, someone else's or your own?


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