June 2011

How to write top-flight manuscript titles

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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  • Good write up/advice

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