Of all the words you write to prepare a manuscript, too often the most important ten or so are left as an afterthought. You’ve slaved for weeks to finish your manuscript. Through draft and re-draft, you managed to shoehorn hundreds of man-hours of careful lab work into the word limit designed to be precisely 300 words too short for whatever you want to say. The figures have been re-drawn and re-ordered a thousand times, and are now as close to perfection as possible. The abstract is so tightly written it creaks as the paper moves, and the ever-expanding army of supplementary information has been assembled.
All you need now is a title. It’s tempting to leave this to the end, and not spare too much thought on it. However, no matter how pertinent your keywords, how resplendent your figures and how eminent your co-authors, the title is most likely to be the thing that decides whether the busy scientist actually takes time to read your paper. Whilst I make no claim to being an expert, I have found the following steps helpful when writing a title.
Write it first
The title shouldn’t be something you think of in the frantic last few moments before you submit your manuscript! Make the title the first thing you write. Use the title to determine the order and content of the figures you put together. Then start writing the manuscript, using the title to decide your narrative. Once you’ve finished writing, go back to the title and see if it still best represents your work.
Check the instructions to authors
This might sound obvious, but some journals will require a slightly formulaic title structure. Whilst this can be quite restrictive, it does make the task of composing a title much easier. Also, it’s definitely worth checking for a word or character limit. Having to re-write your title when you re-submit is just irritating.
Think about the key message
Here we get to the difficult bit. Ideally you want to distil the bewildering vastness of your work into a single sentence, whilst making it sound readable. There’s no way you can focus on every detail, so you have to concentrate on the main arc of the story. Try to think what message you’d like the reader to take from your paper, and try and make that your title. It’s definitely worth getting input from as many people as possible at this point, as the dispassionate reader might take a different message from your manuscript than you do.
Stick to the key message
Whilst you obviously want to make your paper sound as interesting as possible it’s important that you don’t overstate your argument. This may sound blindingly obvious, but you really have to critically evaluate your data to think about what it says. The line between blandly stating the facts and wild exaggeration can be wafer thin. For example, if your draft title says:
“Thing A” does “Thing B” to achieve “Event C”
It may sound pretty straightforward, but you have to critically assess each part of the statement. How sure are you that A is acting directly on B? How clear is it that B directly leads to C? A more honest title might be:
“Thing A”-dependent “Thing B” promotes “Thing C”
Which seems a relatively subtle change, however, nothing is more likely to irritate a reviewer than a title that is not absolutely matched by the text. A small change in the wording of the title could be the difference between a reviewer critically appraising your data, or rejecting them out of hand.
If in doubt…
Try this. Yes, I know it’s about thesis titles.