An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers

Here’s a fun and simple exercise to help students compose effective titles for academic papers.

1. Group students in threes.

2. Instruct each group to create a list of eight Type A or Type B titles (see below) for popular motion pictures.


Balloons: I’m not Leaving this House

Imaginary Friend: No Club for Wimps

Switcheroo: Freaky Mother/Daughter Situation

High Quality H2O: From the Bench to the Starting Lineup

He Nose Who’s Lying: A Man and his Puppet

3. Students turn in lists.

4. Instructor reads titles to entire class and has students guess which movies they refer to.

The title of an academic paper should inform the reader of the paper’s main argument.

Which of the following four titles best announces its paper’s argument?

Cars: Who Needs Them?

Automobiles: An Expensive Waste of Energy

Driving Down your Freeway

Why Automobiles are a Bad Investment

The first title, Cars: Who Needs Them?, tells us the what but not the why of the argument.

The third title, Driving Down your Freeway, might score a few points with old hippy teachers like me by cleverly referencing a Doors lyric, but it doesn’t provide any clues about the paper’s contents.

The fourth title, Why Automobiles are a Bad Investment, doesn’t reveal why cars are a bad investment.

Only the second title, Automobiles: An Expensive Waste of Energy, clearly expresses the paper’s topic and its main argument.

My two favorite strategies for wring a titles for academic papers are:

a) General Idea/Colon/Specific Topic (Argument)

b) Clever Quotation/Colon/Specific Topic (Argument)

Here are some type A titles from this blog:

Listening to the Whirlwind: Theodicy for Deists

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet


Silent Murmurs: A Funny Teacher Story

Here’s one title where I did it backwards (oops):

An Amusing Teacher Story: Tammy’s Puppy

Here are three titles where I used a dash instead of a colon:

Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys—Some Thoughts on Courage and Freedom

What’s the Matter with Kids these Days?, Part 473—It’s all about the Music, Man

Holden Caulfield—Whimpering Little Phony

Here are some type B titles from this blog:

All the Suffering the World Can Feel: The Pain and the Glory of Graham Greene’s Catholicism

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

Not Only by Private Fraud but by Public Law: Thomas More’s Utopia and the Imperfectability of Human Nature

Ghosts of all my Lovely Sins: Some Thoughts on the Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through: The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich


Of course, this is a blog, so I don’t always feel compelled to devise titles which are suitable for academia.

Here are some titles which include a clever quotation but no specific topic:

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

Natural if not Normal

This Business of Saving Souls

We Think by Feeling

Take it Decently

The Hemingway Defense

Famed American Virtue

For All They Care

Here are some clever titles that don’t inform the reader specifically what the paper is about:

Application #2

Hundred Dollar Rip-Off

In Praise of Clever

William Faulkner and the English Language

Men and Sports

Application #6

The Three Types of Irony and an Amusing Teacher Story

Celebrating the Violent Death of a Wicked Man

New Yorker Magazine Buries the Lede in Puff Piece on Education Secretary Duncan

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

The Island of Misused and Abused Words

What’s a War Junkie? Che v Zapata

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

I Wanna Hear

Me and Michael Medved

Confessions of a not-so-Old Curmudgeon

Negatory on the Neg

Poets at the Microphone

Teacher Knows Best–Not

Fantasy Christians

Seinfeld and Gilligan’s Island

Some Friendly Advice for Young Teachers in a World Poisoned by Power-Mad Bureaucrats and Clueless Billionaires

And my Thoughts on articles are book reports and other musings which do not necessarily contain thesis statements and thus do not require academic titles:

Some Thoughts on Joseph Sugarman’s Adweek Copywriting Handbook

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

Some Thoughts on Where I Was From

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

Some Thoughts on Washington Rules

Some Thoughts on The Glass House

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Some Thoughts on American on Purpose

Some Thoughts on The New American Militarism

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Some Thoughts on On Writing

Some Thoughts on the Efficacy of DARE-Type Programs and a Funny Teacher Story

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

Some Thoughts on Streetball

On Redundancy, Oxymorons, and Grammatical Correctness

by Richard W. Bray

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