June 2011

How to write top-flight manuscript titles

 

General advice and specific pointers for authors submitting manuscripts to journals.  


Pick up any newspaper or magazine, and one of the first things you’ll notice are the headlines. Copy editors put a great deal of time and care into developing just the right combination of words to synthesize the facts of stories, to echo the tones of the writers and to entice readers to immerse themselves in the tales that are about to unfold on the page. In scientific publications, titles carry the same importance, only the manuscript author must act as both article composer and title writer extraordinaire. That’s a pretty big undertaking, given that scientists aren’t likely to frequent workshops on top-notch title writing or masterful wordsmithing. 

Whether you’re a born poet or still a relatively clunky scribe, crafting a compelling title for an article takes creativity and concentration. I should know: I’m a recovering newspaper copy editor and have written more headlines than I can count. So when it was suggested that I provide some tips on how to write slam-dunk titles for scientific papers, I huddled with the editors of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s journals and the society’s chief multimedia communicator to come up with some general advice and specific pointers for authors submitting to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular and Cellular Proteomics, and the Journal of Lipid Research.

Alphabet soup

“Clarity trumps just about everything else,” says Ralph A. Bradshaw, co-editor of MCP. Indeed, the consensus is that the greatest challenge authors face when crafting titles is communicating complex ideas clearly in a small space. 

Perhaps feeling constrained by mandated word or character limits, many well-meaning but misguided authors resort to loading titles with acronyms, which can result in what editors of all walks have dubbed derisively “alphabet soup.” Here’s a somewhat soupy example: “ABC activates DEFG1 channels via HI2K-LMN-OPQ-RST3/4 signaling pathway.” (Note: The acronyms in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.) “The simple rule is this: Don’t use them,” Bradshaw says. 

But he and the others acknowledge that even best practices are contingent upon multiple variables. JBC Editor-in-Chief Marty Fedor says she agrees that use of acronyms should be minimized, but she adds, “There are good arguments for not banning them completely, including their usefulness as indexing and search terms.” 

If you simply must use an acronym in a manuscript title, make sure that it is one that has been deemed acceptable by the publication to which you are submitting. The JBC, for example, has a list of approved acronyms on its website for this very purpose; a panel of editors has determined that those on the list are understandable for researchers across the discipline. 

“A major advantage of publishing in the JBC is that our articles attract scientists from a broad range of fields. What we want to avoid are titles that wouldn’t mean anything to a reader who is not familiar with field-specific nomenclature or jargon,” Fedor says. Also, Fedor adds, some acronyms are not all that meaningful even when they are spelled out: “When this is the case, modifiers can help to clarify the meaning of the acronym, as in ‘membrane receptor,’ ‘cytokine,’ ‘regulatory RNA,’ and so forth.”

Working with words

The nuts and bolts of good writing also apply to titles, of course. That means authors should employ active voice rather than passive voice. Take this title, for instance: “The DNA-damage-response kinases DNA-UV and XYZ are stimulated by bulky adduct-containing DNA.” Putting that idea in active voice, which means putting the object of the action last, simply requires switching the structure around to say “Bulky adduct-containing DNA stimulates the DNA-damage-response kinases DNA-UV and XYZ.” An easy fix. 

“A direct assertion of the major finding is likely to capture more interest than a vague, descriptive title.” 

Another tenet of effective composition is to use lively, descriptive verbs. Rather than reporting that something “affects” something else, for example, try to come up with a word that means “affects” but also tells readers how it affects whatever it is. To unearth verbs with depth, don’t be afraid to consult a thesaurus. You don’t have to have all the right words in your head; you just have to have all the right words in your title. 

But, Bradshaw warns, “Don’t get cute.” You should be in tune with the audience you are trying to engage. Wordplay, according to Bradshaw, “is OK for editorials, news articles or other sorts of opinion pieces, but I think that research articles shouldn’t have such. Many of the witticisms you see are based on cultural references, and they are likely lost on or not understood by many readers in different countries.” 

Meanwhile, authors often avoid using precise language in titles because the results they are reporting are not completely conclusive. Yet, says Fedor, “A direct assertion of the major finding is likely to capture more interest than a vague, descriptive title.” 

Label titles usually don’t have the aforementioned weak verb problem: They simply abandon verbs altogether. Here’s an example of a verbless label title: “Hydrolysis of O-Acetyl-ADP-ribose isomers by ADP-ribosylhydrolase 3 (ARH3).” The label title is a safe route to take under certain circumstances, but at least consider whether a more straightforward approach will be more strategic. 

“When I write a manuscript, I spend a lot of time designing the title, as it is the single most important line in an article,” says JLR Editor-in-Chief Edward Dennis. “Titles should be assertive and relay the conclusion. ‘Studies on …’ doesn’t do it, whereas ‘Demonstration of …’ does. Even better is to say ‘X causes Y.’”

Keep it simple

Also problematic are lengthy, often convoluted word combinations meant to operate in unison to describe a single concept. Here’s a fabricated example: “The beta-arrestin pathway-selective angiotensin AB1C receptor agonist Def2Igh3Ijk.” And here’s another: “A novel XIM (XYZ-9 interacting mediator of cell death) D8-ligase, tripartite motif containing protein 57 (TRIM57).” In isolation, those word combinations aren’t impossible to navigate. But if you insert them into a title and read it as a whole, the cadence of the language can drag. The root of this problem, of course, is that sometimes there is no single word that conveys such a complex idea. It is up to the writer, then, to take a step back and make sure the title doesn’t trip up readers. Rule of thumb: Rewrite so that your reader doesn’t have to reread. 

“You don’t have to explain everything in the paper in the title,” adds Bradshaw. “Long, long titles usually are more confusing than helpful, particularly because readers will find the papers they are looking for by keyword or even whole-text searches, so run-on titles aren’t needed and basically aren’t helpful.”

Mediums matter

With texting, RSS feeds and social media sites like Twitter driving communication today, the pressure is on authors to write titles that are brief and that resonate across multiple technological platforms. Everything communicated on Twitter, for instance, must be done in 140 characters or fewer. Talk about making every word count! Think back upon the title of the last manuscript you submitted for publication. Could it have been tweeted? 

“Shorter titles are not only less intimidating for readers, but they also are easier to read on mobile devices such as iPhones,” emphasizes Sarah Crespi, who heads up ASBMB’s online communication efforts. The JBC has an iPhone app and can be read on the Kindle, and all three of the journals have mobile sites that streamline content for handheld devices. Also, ASBMB has Twitter and Facebook streams that are updated throughout the day. The content you create should fit on all the lanes of the information highway, or it will get left behind. 

All of the journal editors recommended that authors make crafting a strong title a priority during the manuscript composition process, and they emphasized that the title, abstract and figures work together to tell your whole scientific story. If those elements are not deliberately and skillfully crafted, all the other important prose that you placed in the body of the manuscript may not get the attention it deserves.

Postscript

In the weeks after the publication of this article, I was pleased to observe on our social media channels and through traditional mediums that readers were motivated to discuss title writing, even though some challenged the best practices I provided. For those reasons, and to feed my own hunger for thinking about and writing about writing, I’d like to acknowledge some of the points readers have made.  

One reader zeroed in on the passage about how to turn passive voice into active voice so that a title is more direct. It read: 

“Take this title, for instance: ‘The DNA-damage-response kinases DNA-UV and XYZ are stimulated by bulky adduct-containing DNA.’ Putting that idea in active voice, which means putting the object of the action last, simply requires switching the structure around to say ‘Bulky adduct-containing DNA stimulates the DNA-damage-response kinases DNA-UV and XYZ.’ An easy fix.” 

The reader acknowledged that my edits would satisfy a structure stickler but noted that the paper in question (and apparently not so skillfully cloaked by changing a few acronyms) focused primarily on DNA-damage-response kinases and not on bulky adduct-containing DNA. Putting the main player of the paper at the end of the title, the reader said, ultimately de-emphasizes its importance.  

I’d never heard such an argument for passive construction before, but I find it intriguing. I chose this title as an example not because it was badly written (it wasn’t) but because I could use it to illustrate the difference between active and passive constructions. Furthermore, I don’t imagine any reader would not understand the title in its original form, which brings me back to what Ralph A. Bradshaw, co-editor of MCP, said: “Clarity trumps just about everything else.” So, I appreciate the reader’s point and predict that it will influence my editing in the future.   

Other readers differed on when to use acronyms. As you can see in the article, even the ASBMB journal editors have different approaches. It really comes down to being in tune with your audience, and by that I mean the journal’s audience. If you are publishing in a journal with a broad readership, your title will be very different than one for a specialized journal. Just be sure that whatever you come up with (a) follows the journal’s guidelines and (b) is tailored to that journal’s audience. 

I’m pleased to report that the JBC is implementing a new step in the publication process to assist authors with crafting compelling titles. Starting this week, editorial board members will be on the lookout for titles that could use a bit of wordsmithing and will send those manuscripts to our seasoned science writer/editor Harry Smith, who then will consult with the authors on how best to tell their story. We hope that this new service will yield more succinct and impactful titles and greater exposure for authors. 

If I’ve learned anything during my editing tenure, it’s that writing is personal, even when we try to distance ourselves from it. Each word and punctuation mark represents a choice, and it says something about how the writer’s mind was working at the moment of composition. Sometimes that snapshot is a clear representation, and other times it is blurrier than we intended. Having said that, regardless of whether or not you agree with the tips presented or with how I presented them, thank you for making the article one of the most popular ones in the June issue and for contributing to the discussion.  

Angela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is managing editor for special projects at ASBMB.


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1 Comments

  • Good write up/advice

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