An effective research paper title will
- identify the limited subject of the essay, and
- the position the paper takes on the subject.
It may also be useful to grab the reader’s interest with a brief quote or detail, but if your goal is to persuade your reader, your title will also need to inform.
Your title is your first opportunity to persuade your reader. Don’t waste it.
|That’s not a paper title, it’s just a label. Your instructor already knows what the homework is; your instructor will be reading the title to find out what position your paper is doing to defend.|
|The Social Value of Television|
|The above at least identifies the topic, but it’s weak because it doesn’t identify the position the author is going to take.|
|The Social Value of Television: Smith’s Microcommunities from “Appointment TV” to “Binge-watching”|
|This title is more informative; if your instructor simply wants you to list what you’ve learned, then this title might be fine. But if your instructor has asked you to defend a position, this title doesn’t even hint at what position this paper will take. (On the most basic level, will this paper agree or disagree with Smith’s position on the relationship between microcommunities and the social value of television?)|
|How Smith’s Microcommunities Elevated the Social Value of Television (1980s-2010s)|
|Television’s Surprising Endurance Disproves Smith’s Microcommunity Model|
|Either of these will work. Note that simply mentioning that the paper will talk about the social value of television and Smith’s concept of microcommunities is vague; there are a limitless number of creative ways that an intelligent student could work with those two subjects.|
|Hamlet and Macbeth: Similarities and Differences|
|My freshman year in college, I actually turned this in as the title of a paper.|
My argument was that as Hamlet’s plot descended into tragedy, Hamlet became more human, while as Macbeth’s plot unfolded, Macbeth became less human.
|Tragic reversal: Macbeth’s tragic fall mirrors Hamlet’s tragic ascent|
|That would have been a much better title for the paper I described above.|
(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
Thomas Ricks recently brought up a great point: a lot of war memoirs have terrible titles.
Now I love titles. I love coming up with fake titles for hypothetical bands, albums, blogs and novels. So when I started reading post-9/11 war memoirs, their (sub par) titles were one of the first things I noticed. Most are either bland (War, My War, War and Decision), boring (Wiser in Battle, My Year in Iraq, One Man's Army, Good Soldiers), or over-the-top (Warrior King, Lone Survivor, Seal of Honor). And they tend to have really long and really hyperbolic subtitles, like "A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood," or "The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10."
Since TR brought up this issue, and since I've been thinking about it, this week, and next, I’m covering war memoirs titles. Which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t, and why. To research, I found the forty most popular titles I could, and began blasting them apart. But to show I'm not entirely negative, I'll cover what I liked first. In no particular order, my...
5 Favorite War Memoir Titles
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher - Now that's how you write a title/subtitle combo. Boom. I'd read this book. (And will when I have time.)
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer - Krakauer uses the always-effective "quote the classics in the title" formula, and uses it perfectly (though I wouldn't describe Tillman's story as an odyssey, that's a minor quibble). This title is philosophical, heroic and tragic, all in 4 short words. Might be the best.
My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Lloyd- Haven't read this yet, but this title makes want to. Since that's really a title's only job, it has to be considered a success.
Dispatches by Michael Herr- Short, evocative, perfect.
The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq by John Crawford- At sixteen words, it's a little long, but what can I say? The title and subtitle work well together. The title intrigues, and the sub-title describes without giving away too much. Plus it shows an awareness of the central problem with memoirs: honesty.
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning - This isn't a memoir, but it's the only book that I know of that has its thesis in the title. And that cracks me up.
...And 4 More Almost Great Ones
Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams - I love the title--it's probably the best I've read--but the subtitle is redundant.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien- Michael says I'm biased because so many books I liked ended up on this list. I'm not. Good follows good. Most classics have classic titles, because good writers know how to write good titles; it's the same skill set. And The Things They Carried is a classic title. (Though it violates one of my personal, esoteric title pet peeves: including the name of a story or song track in the title of an album or short story/essay collection.)
My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell - This subtitle should have been the title. And seriously Buzzell, google your title before you send it to the printers. Rooney's bookcame out years before yours.
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War by Brandon Friedman- Again, I love the title but hate the redundant subtitle.