June 2011

How to write top-flight manuscript titles

“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.’”

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  • Good write up/advice

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