How to Create Memorable Titles

Jerry Talandis Jr.

Previously in Writer’s Workshop, Tanner (2020, p. 59) challenged us to pay special attention to the title: “Ask yourself this question: How can you make it memorable?” Titles are, without question, extremely important, as they are the only part of your paper guaranteed to be read. Well-chosen titles condense content into a few words and hook attention, enticing potential readers. Poorly written ones—verbose, jargon-filled, or vague—make it less likely that your hard work will get noticed. In this column, I will cover attributes of successful titles and explore some tried and true formulas to make them more informative and engaging. I will also provide a list of common pitfalls to avoid as well as some exercises to help you develop your title writing skills.


Attributes of a Good Title

According to Bavdekar (2016), the main purpose of a title is to inform readers about the contents of the article. Good titles are simple, direct, clear, brief, and attractive. The ideal length will vary according to journal guidelines, so be sure to consult those before you begin pondering various possibilities. For example, the guidelines for ELT Journal state that “titles should preferably be no more than 50 characters long, with an absolute maximum of 70, including spaces” (“Information for Authors,” n.d., para 37). Yes, even blank spaces may count towards your title’s length! You’ll need to keep this limitation in mind and work within it.

The following rubric in Table 1 can be used to evaluate title ideas across four criteria: Does the title accurately predict content? Is it interesting? Does it reflect the tone of the article? Are important keywords present to improve searchability?


Table 1. Rubric for evaluating titles for research papers (Based on Hairston & Keene, 2003)

Different versions of the same title

Predicts content?


Reflects tone?

Important keywords?


Benefits of meditation for the language teaching profession: A quantitative investigation






Why mindful teachers make the best instructors






Meditation gurus






The present teacher: A quantitative report on how meditation can improve teaching and learning





Which of these four versions do you like best? Well, according to the rubric, they are either a bit dry (#1), not descriptive enough (#2), or vague and incomplete (#3). Only Title 4 meets all of the criteria. However, at 94 characters, the length may not fit within the limits stated in the submission guidelines. Each and every word will therefore need to be considered. Ask yourself: Is it essential? Going through such a process will clarify the most important aspects of your manuscript and lead to a better title.

Table 2. Thirteen different academic title constructions (Hartley, 2012)

Title Function



Announces the topic in general

The age of adolescence


Particularises a specific theme following a general heading

Pre-writing: The relation between thinking and feeling


Indicates the controlling question

Is academic writing masculine?


States the findings of the study

Asthma in schoolchildren is greater in schools close to animal feeding operations


Indicates that an answer to the question will be revealed

Abstracts, introductions and discussions: How far do they differ in style?


Announces the direction of the author’s argument

Plus ca change...Gender preferences for academic disciplines


Emphasizes the methodology used in the research

Using colons in titles: A meta-analytic review


Suggests guidelines and/or comparisons

Seven types of ambiguity


Bids for attention via startling openings

‘Do you ride an elephant and never tell them you’re German’: The experiences of British, Asian, black, and overseas student teachers in the UK


Attracts via alliteration

Legalese and legal ease


Attracts via literary or biblical allusions

Lo! They came to pass. The motivations of failing students


Attracts via puns

Now take this PIL (Patient Information Leaflet)


Seeks to mystify

How do you know you’ve alternated?


Alternative Title Constructions

While the Engaging: Informative construction, featuring a colon, is a tried and true formula for an effective title (Sword, 2012), there are viable alternatives. Hartley (2012) noted that research on the effectiveness of various title types is inconclusive and is highly dependent on author preference and reflective of preferred styles within various disciplines. In other words, since there is no one best way to write a title, it is worth looking into a variety of alternative approaches. His research uncovered 13 different title types, organized by function (see Table 2).

Understanding the Impact of Paratext and Subtext

With so many viable title options, how can you know which is best for your paper? Sword (2012) argued that titles do not exist in a vacuum. Though they shape the reading experience, they are also influenced by paratextual elements, such as the cover, publisher’s blurb, author’s name, preface, dedication, typography, and illustrations. The paratext could also include the type of journal or the theme of a conference. Awareness of these contextual matters can encourage more creativity with your titles. For example, if you are publishing an article in a journal dedicated to task-based language teaching, you may not need to include these exact words in your title, since all articles appearing within would ostensibly investigate this topic in some way. Given this context, perhaps a more adventurous title would help your paper stand out and get noticed. Alternatively, if you prefer to play it safe, you could use acronyms such as TBLT without worry, knowing they would be easily identifiable by potential readers of this journal.

Sword (2012) also pointed out the importance of clarifying the subtext of your title, the underlying message that can be inferred by attentive readers. For example, a playful, amusing title might signal you are the kind of person who likes to entertain and engage an audience. Conversely, a complicated, jargon-filled one might indicate you want to be taken seriously as a researcher and are unconcerned about reaching a wider audience. Table 3 illustrates some possible subtext messages for different scenarios. In each one, imagine you have been invited to publicly present your findings from a recently completed research project.

Table 3. Possible subtext messages underlying various title choices (Sword, 2012)


Subtext Message

You would like to present your research findings to specialist colleagues and choose a serious, functional title laden with technical terminology

You can trust my results because my research has been conducted according to the highest scientific standards

You are presenting to members of the general public and choose a purely informational title that describes your research in clear and simple terms

My lecture will be informative and lucid, but possibly rather dull

To appeal to a non-specialist audience, you decide to go with a playful approach

I want to entertain you

You decide an alliterative title is the best way to attract a non-specialist audience

My talk, like my title, will be carefully crafted

You feel your research findings contain an important message for society, so you go with a provocative title

I want to make you think

You are defending your thesis or dissertation, so you chose a safe title you know your supervisor(s) would approve of

I am one of you now; I know the rules of the game, so please admit me to your disciplinary fellowship


As you can see, an ideal title depends greatly on your intended audience and the larger goals of your project. One approach can work as well as any other. As Sword (2012, p. 65) pointed out, “every one of these choices carries both benefits and risks; the same subtext that attracts one reader could easily turn another off.” In the end, you will need to decide between fitting in to reach a narrow audience, standing out to connect with a wider one, or both. Be open and aware of the subtext message of your title. A clear and intentional choice you feel comfortable with is the way to go.

Title Pitfalls to Avoid

The road to creating a memorable title is not without its pitfalls, such as these from Bavdekar (2016):

  • Failing to omit redundant phrases, such as investigation of, study of, or observations on
  • Including abbreviations, jargon, numerical values, or other technical parameters unfamiliar to your target audience
  • Utilizing puns or catchy phrases that could be misinterpreted across cultures and are misaligned with the tenor of your paper
  • Regarding grammar-level faux pax, Sword (2012) advises avoiding the following traps:

Including more than two abstract or collective nouns, which have a generic, lulling quality. Examples include analysis, structure, development, or students, teachers, subjects

  • Using too many academic verbs, especially in the participle form, such as engaging, applying, improving
  • Failing to take advantage of powerful concrete nouns and vivid verbs that create solid, clear imagery, such as piano, guppy, path, or ban, mutilate, or gestate


Tips and Exercises for Developing Title Writing Skills

Like any skill, writing memorable titles takes time and repeated practice. Here are some things you can do to improve.


Begin With a Working Title

Mack (2012) recommended you write your title last, after your paper is complete. Begin with a working title, but do not get too attached, as you will need to revise it after you have consulted and worked within the submission guidelines as previously described. As part of this final revision process, Hartley (2012) suggested soliciting some feedback from a few trusted colleagues. This is especially helpful if you are attempting an adventurous title construction.


Write Out Your Intentions

According to Sword (2012), it can really help to clarify what impression you want to make on your audience. Your title announces your intentions in various ways—serious, humorous, detailed, expansive, technical, or accessible. Which way fits your needs best? Taking time to write out your intentions will clarify the subtext and guide you towards an appropriate title style.


Reflect on Your Previous Titles

If you have several publications or presentations under your belt, take some time to reflect on the title styles and structures you used. Use Table 2 above as a guide. Which construct did you use and why? Can you identify the subtext for each? Additionally, if your titles often contain a colon, try crafting a colon-free version that is engaging and informative (Sword, 2012). Revisiting previous titles will reveal your current thinking on this important aspect of academic writing and hopefully stimulate some creative thinking.


Reflect on the Titles in a Target Journal

Inherent in the meaning of memorable is standing out a bit from the crowd in order to increase your chances of getting noticed. If you are planning on publishing a paper in a particular journal, analyze the titles. Do they tend to follow a particular type or structure? If so, then perhaps an opportunity to go in a different direction is at hand. In other words, zig when everyone else zags.


Final Thoughts

Whatever title style you choose, know that there is no one best way to go about it. The best fit for your needs will depend on careful consideration of who you are trying to reach with your writing and what your ultimate goals are. Whether you decide to play it safe with a traditional style or walk a less traveled path, do so with clarity and conviction. Do your best to avoid common pitfalls and be at peace knowing you have created the best possible gateway to your work.



Bavdekar, S. B. (2016). Formulating the right title for a research article. Journal of Association of Physicians of India, 64(2), 53–56.

Information for authors. (n.d.). ELT Journal.

Hairston, M. & Keene, M. (2003). Successful writing, 5th edition. W. W. Horton & Company.

Hartley, J. (2012). Titles are the hardest thing: How can we make them more effective? LSE Impact Blog.

Mack, C. (2012). How to write a good scientific paper: Title, abstract, and keywords. In Journal of Micro/Nanolithography, MEMS, and MOEMS, 11(2).

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Harvard University Press.

Tanner, P. (2020). On academic writing. In The Language Teacher, 44(6), 59-61.