We need to talk about titles

Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


A colon

The dreaded colon

We need to talk about titles. We’ve been neglecting them and it’s starting to show.

Neglect signifies that we once cared for titles but, for some reason, the care has ceased or become sporadic at best (insert your favourite garden-tending metaphor here).

This neglect might partly be explained by the ever-increasing pressure on academic life: large teaching loads, increasing demands for research output, conferences, meetings and other administrative distractions, as well as our paltry attempts to maintain some kind of work-life balance (one more reason to attend Shut Up and Write).

Being time-poor means we are often in such a rush to write that we don’t spend the time needed to gather our thoughts and really nail what it is we are writing about.

But we should. In particular, we really need to work on our titles. Those little summaries are the first thing that people read.

This whole issue became clear to me when I was recently attempting a re-write of a paper I’d finished two years ago. The paper desperately needed some work. It was crafted in haste and, coinciding with the birth of my daughter, was written under the influence of military-grade sleep deprivation. Exhaustion doesn’t always sharpen the mind.

I’d envisaged the re-writing as a kind of therapy; the ultimate vindication of what I originally thought (and still think) was a good idea about space in postmodern fiction.

My first task was to tackle the title, which I realised conveyed nothing about the paper or what my intention was in writing it. In fact, my title was a disconnected, largely irrelevant jumble of words that did more harm than good. This is my original title:

Maligned spaces and the usurpation of power structures within fiction

It hadn’t taken me two years to realise this, but it had taken some self-reflection to get there. This realisation led to more anxiety that I was unable to articulate what I wanted to write about.

I spent time focusing on the fundamental premise of the paper, its raison d’être, and finally got it right after many edits.

From this process, three things crystallised in my mind:

1. I’m starting a petition to get rid of colons in titles.

Okay, that might be a little extreme but colon abuse, especially in titles, is a pet hate of mine.

In my experience, titles are often treated as an afterthought – stuck on to the end of a hastily banged-out article or application. Invariably, this means that they end up looking something like this:

(Vague concept): (Slightly roundabout way of talking about vague concept)

Imagine Shakespeare doing it that way:

Nothing: Much Ado About It

See what I mean? Now, there’s the obvious counter-argument that Shakespeare wasn’t writing for funding bodies such as the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). There’s also the mesa-argument about the odds of Shakespeare getting funded given the percentage of funding grants for humanities, let alone playwriting – “What, no A* journal articles? Who does this Shakespeare guy think he is?” – but I digress.

I’m not suggesting that all titles need to be Shakespearean, or that style should be put above substance. I’m simply saying that titles are often neglected, and that colons do very little to heal that neglect. Jorge Cham feels the same way about PhD titles:

 

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

This brings me to my second point.

2. Nailing the title is important.

It frames everything that follows, including the all-important Summary Sentence. This is just as true for research grant applications as it is for journal articles. The Research Funding Tool Kit provides more reasons why this is important.

I recently attended a workshop with a former Executive Director of the Australian Research Council (read: someone you should definitely pay attention to) who highlighted the importance of titles for reviewers. Titles, she explained, are the first guideposts. They are an immediate measure of the author’s ability to be articulate, generate enthusiasm and excitement about their project, and speak with confidence regarding their area of research.

Reviewers will read a large volume of applications in a very short space of time and your title, when carefully crafted, can give an immediate sense of the project. This is extremely helpful when you’re reading through a stack of 200+ articles or applications. Ask any reviewer and generally they will say that they have a sense of the grant by the end of the second page, so titles definitely matter.

3. Take your time.

As someone who works in grant development, I read a large number of grant applications with titles that show their signs of production in similar ways to that of my own paper: rushed, confusing, and largely irrelevant. This is irritating (at best) for the person reading it.

The worst offenders are those that dangle an intriguing idea or concept, then completely fail to mention anything about that idea throughout the rest of the application. If you’re not going to talk about Hyperstasis again until page seven, don’t mention it in the title because it’s clearly not that fundamental to your grant/article/etc. Catchy concepts can be great, but make sure that your title really reflects what you are trying to say in the body of work.

This means that the title should link to your aims, methods, and outcomes. This will strengthen the structure of your argument/application.

So, try to think of your title as the binding mechanism of your grant application or paper. A good title is to your writing what the binding is to a book. It unites every page, and is stoic and robust. Without it, your text can start to fall apart and be hard to put back together.

In the end, I went with:

A Marxist reading of fictional spaces.

Is it better?  Well, it is clearer for a start. I like it. What do you think?

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8 Responses to We need to talk about titles

  1. Glad you put the focus on titles actually telling the (potential) reader what they’re about to read. I’m envious at times of the imaginative ‘clever’ and creative attention grabbing title, but really pissed off when that’s all it turns out to be. I like your thinking, thanks.

    • JLaskovsky says:

      Thanks Annabelle – really glad you enjoyed the post and yes, completely relate to being disappointed by the content after a clever/creative title.

  2. Pingback: We need to talk about titles | Health Services Authors

  3. ucfhistory says:

    Reblogged this on UCF History and commented:
    Writing a paper? Thesis? Your title is one of the most important elements- it’s the first thing readers see. Check out this article from The Research Whisperer. Let’s get those titles right!

  4. Janvi Gandhi says:

    That is a great rewriting of the original title. I feel like the root of problems with clarity in writing comes from a lack of self confidence as an academic. For amateurs like myself, a post like this helps us become self aware of the predictable web of symbols that we often get caught into and how to proactively work towards clarity in titles and abstracts. Thank you for the insightful post.

    • JLaskovsky says:

      Hi Janvi – I like your notion of getting caught in a web of symbols. Sometimes we write in a certain manner because we feel as though that’s how we are expected to write. I’m as guilty as anyone of this and it runs all the way through to titles. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and good luck with your writing.

  5. There is a wonderful article from the medical area on an analysis of titles … “The number of citations was positively correlated with the length of the title, the presence of a colon in the title and the presence of an acronym. Factors that predicted poor citation included reference to a specific country in the title.” I love the importance of the colon!

    Titles are an issue, whether they should be is another matter.

    Jacques, T.S. and Sebire, N.J. (2010), “The impact of article titles on citation hits: an analysis of general and specialist medical journals”, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Short Reports, (1) 2.

    • JLaskovsky says:

      Your point about whether titles should be important is a good one. I love the science fields for exactly this kind of approach to a problem – instead of griping about colons, they sought some hard facts. It’s a great article and somewhat heartening to hear that even in the sciences “a review of dermatology journals reported that the majority of articles did not report the study design used in the title or abstract.” It’s this kind of clarity that we need to strive towards.
      Thank you for pointing me towards that article and for your comment.

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