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How to write an engaging title for your academic journal article

Writing a titleWe’ve all been told to “never judge a book by its title” and yet, we all do. In a world with abundant information, indexed and cataloged into a series of links on the screen, the title may be the only part of your work a potential reader ever sees. Unless, of course, that title encourages them to click the link and read more.

Purpose of a good title

A good title will capture a potential reader’s attention and encourage them to read further. When skimming the table of contents in a journal or the results list from a journal database search, the title is the first opportunity an author has to engage the reader.

In order to get a reader to explore your paper further – by reading the abstract, reading the full article, and, ideally, citing your work in articles of their own – that first impression must be both interesting and relevant to the reader.

Types of titles

Three types of titles are commonly used in journal articles: declarative, descriptive, and interrogative. Each can be used to attract a different type of audience.

A declarative title makes a declaration. It summarizes the study and the results of the study. This type of title provides the most insight into the contents of the paper.

A descriptive title describes the study but stops short of revealing the results. Descriptive titles often include details about the methods used to conduct the study rather than the findings.

An interrogative title poses the research in the form of a question. Often reflecting one or more of the research questions driving the study or restating the research problem in the form of a question, interrogative titles commonly avoid the inclusion of any details of the study itself.

Characteristics of a good title

Despite the various types, all good titles share some common characteristics.

First, a good title should be interesting and engaging to the audience. In some cases, this may include humor or key words and phrases of interest to the target reader.

Second, a good title should accurately predict the content of the article. At a minimum, the title should identify the purpose of the article, and depending on the type of the title used, should contain elements of methodology and details of the findings, as appropriate.

Finally, a good title should reflect the tone of the article and the journal. While summarizing the content, the title should provide a first impression of the style and tone used by the authors in the manuscript.

Useful questions to ask when developing a good title

You may be thinking that the title should be written last, given the above criteria, and in some cases, you may find it easier to do so. For others, the title can anchor the subsequent writing of the manuscript and is therefore written early in the process. Regardless of your preference, you may find it better to wait until you can at least answer the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the article?
  • What are the key questions addressed by the article?
  • Who or what is being studied?
  • What methods are being used to conduct the study?
  • What are the results of the study?
Refining the title

Once you are able to answer the questions above and have determined the type of title you want to use, it’s time to write some drafts and refine your title to its final state.

A word of caution before moving forward though – some journals have specific guidelines for titles and your successful submission of the article will rely on your compliance with those guidelines, so read them first.

Consider keywords and search engine optimization

While our next post in this series related to journal articles will focus on effective selection of keywords for journal articles, you should still be able to think of words or phrases that are relative to your article content without a deep understanding.

To keep it simple, if you were looking for this article in a library database, what would you type in the search bar?

Form a sentence using the keywords

If you were to describe your entire article in a single sentence using the keywords identified above, what would you say?

In this step of the process, be descriptive, use the keywords liberally, and be sure to include everything you believe to be relevant to a first glance impression of your work.

Trim, cut, and reword the sentence

Most journal article titles are between 10 and 20 words long. Look for words in your sentence that can be eliminated. Consider ways that content can be grouped or summarized with fewer words. But be careful not to remove keywords.

Finally, reorder the remaining words into a concrete result. For longer titles, consider the use of a subtitle to provide greater description and separate the main title from the subtitle with a colon or a dash.

Testing the title

After the title has been drafted, perform a final quality test as it relates to your article and the journal for submission. Read the title in its final form and ask yourself the following questions.

  • Does this title accurately represent the purpose and content of the article?
  • Have I avoided the use of abbreviations and jargon that may be unfamiliar to potential readers?
  • Have I included appropriate descriptive words that potential readers will find attractive, engaging, and likely use when searching article databases?
  • Have I complied with any guidelines established by the journal for submission?

If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, your title should be one that engages with the audience and earns your article a second look and further consideration for both acceptance and readership in the journal.

Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.