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Crafting compelling and purposeful titles: A five step process

Although the old adage states “you can’t tell a book by its cover”, in academic writing it is crucial that the title of an article or book “tell” the essence of the work. The title is the first critical decision point for a reader. Its goal is to invite the reader to peruse the abstract, read the article, and, hopefully, cite your work.

The title does a lot of work for your manuscript, and there are many good reasons to pay attention to crafting short, content-rich, and engaging titles. First, for you, the author, spending time crafting a title forces you to distill your detailed, multi-page manuscript into 10 to 15 words, a daunting task. Yet, through this process you can gain clarity on your topic, enabling you to hone your discussion points and potentially your writing as well. Second, the title is the potential reader’s first decision point and it is where the reader asks, “Shall I read on? Or not?” Your title needs to entice readers to read on. Third, digital databases select key words as search terms in your title and abstract to identify your work for others. Your title must include key words that signal the content and make it easily identifiable by search engines.  Finally, writing an engaging, short, and clear title is a skill that develops through practice. The more you practice with awareness and intention, the better titles you will craft.

Let us look at two titles for the same manuscript.

a) An investigation of student responses to classroom activities that require reflection: A qualitative study of 50 liberal arts faculty (19 words)

This title is okay but it is a bit wordy, full of nominalizations, and generally dull.

b) Fifty prompts for student reflection, doorways to engagement: faculty perspectives. (12 words)

This title is short and direct, uses rich and evocative words, and sparks interest. It excludes reference to qualitative study or that it is a study at all like the first title (a.) does.  You can check the other titles in your selected journal as to how important that content is.

Crafting compelling titles can be made easier with this five-step process.

Step 1. Write three to five sentences that answer: “What is this paper about?”
Step 2. Underline all key words and make a list of those words.
Step 3.  Write several sentences using the key words.
Step 4. Eliminate unnecessary words like “are”, “are not”, etc. from the sentences you created in Step 3. Look to keep words that are evocative and distill key ideas. Craft a couple of titles from these words.
Step 5.  Check the word length requirements for the title from your selected journal author guidelines. Reread the titles you crafted. Ask yourself?

  • Does the title have too many words?
  • Does it distill the primary content of the manuscript?
  • Does it avoid nominalizations (verbs that become nouns) like words that end with “-tion” or “-able”?
  • Does it have dead verbs like “is” and “are” that don’t do any work, that is, convey any meaning?
  • Does it have active action verbs, like “show” rather than “provide”?

This may not be the last step you take in crafting your title, but by completing this process you will have identified the key words you want to convey. In addition, and more importantly in the long run, with this process you are strengthening your title-creation skill set.

Write More, Publish More, Stress Less!: Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly PracticeDannelle D. Stevens, Professor Emerita at Portland State University, is the author of Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five key principles for creative and scholarly writing.