June 2011

How to write top-flight manuscript titles

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.


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.” 

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  • Good write up/advice

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