For something so small, a title can make a big difference. It's the first of your words that a reader will see, which means it often has to carry the weight of your entire paper. Despite this, it's often tempting to simply dash off a few words and move on from worrying about titling your work. But, with a little extra effort, it's possible to create a title that will have an impact.
Why Worry About the Title?
Titling your work can seem like an insignificant step in the whole paper writing process. When you've spent hours, weeks, or months researching and writing, slapping a dozen words on the title page doesn't seem like a big deal. And, especially for students, they often aren't-your teacher is going to read your paper no matter what you title it, so it doesn't really matter, right?
But, for those interested in publishing or otherwise getting their work noticed, the title is one of the most important parts of a paper. Think of your paper as being like a product that you're trying to sell. If you can't do a good job of convincing people that your product is important, then when you publish your work no one is going to read it. If, on the other hand, you want to attract readers attention and convince them to devote some of their time to your work, then you need a strategy.
The title of your paper is a key part of that strategy. The title is like the name of a store or brand-it's the first thing people see, and it will either hook them or turn them off of your work. Think about when you're doing research and consider how many times you scanned the title of a work to decide if you should read more. When you publish, others will be looking at your title in the exact same way.
This brings us back to academic writing. Even if you're not publishing, a well-crafted title is still important because it tells the reader (e.g., your teacher) what to expect from your work. It lays the groundwork for your arguments and shapes how your readers will interpret your paper. And, just as importantly, it's a simple way to show your teacher that you're taking your work seriously. A lazy handful of words at the top of the page tells your teacher that you don't care enough to write an appropriate title.
The Three Parts of a Title
We're going to get to the specifics of wording your title in the next section, but before we do that it's important to understand what a title should and shouldn't do. Every title serves three main functions:
It tells the reader what the paper is about. This one seems straightforward, but it's worth repeating. If you use vague wording or try to be too clever, then the content of the paper will be lost.
It grabs the reader's attention. That being said, paper titles don't have to be dry and boring, and there's nothing wrong with trying to hook the reader with a fun title.
Often writing with a short word limit is more difficult than writing with a limitless number of pages. When you have pages and pages to devote to explaining your ideas, you can take all the words you need to get your point across. But for things like abstracts and titles, you have to narrow your whole paper down into a just a few words. This means you have to be very clear on what you want the title to convey and meticulous with your word choice. After all, when you're using only a dozen words, every single one is important.
The most important job of the title is to clearly tell the reader what your paper is going to be about. If it accomplishes nothing else, it should at least provide the reader with the main point that they will take away from your work and allow the reader to accurately assess if they should continue reading. This means that the title needs to match the content of your work. If your results were less than conclusive, don't try to oversell them in the title; if you have a have an exciting discovery to announce, make sure to shout it loud and clear. One of the surest ways to annoy a reader is to make them feel like they've been tricked by a title that doesn't accurately describe a paper. If the thesis of your paper is "Poor sleep habits correlate with weight gain in high school students," don't oversell with a title like "Not Getting Enough Sleep Makes Students Fat."
Be clear and precise
Most title are going to be somewhere between five and fifteen words, which isn't a lot of space to convey your ideas. So, make every word county by being clear and precise. Avoid unnecessary words like "observation on" or "investigation of" - the reader already knows that you're doing some sort of research. Likewise, the reader is going to already assume that, since you're writing this paper, you have something important to say, so don't take up valuable space in the title by declaring "a new discovery" or "important finding."
Use key terms
Along with the abstract, the title is a section of the paper that drives searches. Databases like PubMed and Google will look for key words in the title, so you should get used to getting one or two important keywords in the title so your work will appear in searches. And even if you're not publishing your work, you still want readers to know the specific topics you're going to address before you launch into your introduction. If you're writing a paper on the hunger-regulating hormone ghrelin, make sure that the word ghrelin appears in the title; just saying "The Role of Hormones in Regulating Hunger" will cause your paper to blend in with everybody else's.
Using key terms will also help with another important idea of title-writing: be informative. Obviously the title isn't going to include all there is to know about your work, but it should give the reader a pretty good idea about where they're headed should they chose to read it. Choose words that describe ideas that are specific to your paper: titles like "Color in The Great Gatsby" or "A Study of Daffodil Flowering Times" doesn't tell the reader what you have to say about those topics. But more specific titles like "How Color Heightens Mood in The Great Gatsby" or "Daffodil Flowering Responds to Seasonal Temperature Changes" will get the reader started on the right foot.
Write the title last
The title should be the very last part of your paper that your write. After all, you can't summarize your ideas until you know exactly what it is you plan to say. The abstract can often serve as the first exercise in paring down your work. Then, after you've narrowed your ideas to a few key sentences, you can further narrow it down to a few key words. Also make sure you test your title with someone who isn't familiar with the content of your work. If a friend or classmate who hasn't read your paper can discern its main point from the title, then you've done your job well.
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