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Creating strong titles

One of the first things a reader sees in a document is the title of the work, and as is so often the case, first impressions are important. If the title doesn’t grab readers' attention, it’s unlikely they'll continue reading. The best titles pique a reader’s interest in the subject matter and outline the focus of the document. If this sounds like a magical combination of substance and style, you’re right; it takes practice to write engaging and informative titles. The American Psychological Association (2010) provided guidance on the substance side of the equation:

  • The title should “be a concise statement of the main topic and should identify the variables of theoretical issues under investigation and the relationship between them” (p. 23).
  • Titles shouldn’t require any additional information to make sense (p. 23).
  • A title will likely need to be shortened within the running head, so a strong title should be easily abridged yet still make sense (p. 23).
  • Leave out unnecessary words and avoid abbreviations to ensure correct indexing (p. 23).
  • Keep titles to a maximum length of 12 words (p. 23).

Regarding the display of style in the title, consider your audience and their expectations, as well as the tone of the document. Would it be appropriate to use humour in the title? Could you use a clever play on words to grab your reader’s attention? Are there words that can be included to signal alignment with the instructions? Academics often use two-part titles that are separated with a colon. The first part of the title typically grabs the reader’s attention, and the second part usually presents the substantive details required to identify the focus of the work. For example, “You Probably Think This Paper's About You: Narcissists' Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation” (Carlson, Vazire, & Oltmanns, 2011). 

If you’re looking for examples of good titles, please ask your instructor if she or he would identify some past works with strong titles and why the instructor liked the titles. If you’re writing an article for publication in a journal, review some recent editions to see if there are patterns in the titles. Finally, try to give your imagination some time to work on the title, and make sure that you’re prepared to note any ideas when inspiration strikes. 

For more information on creating strong titles, see “Five Steps to a Great Title” in the APA Style Blog. If the title will appear on a title page, see “Title Pages” for more information. Finally, if you have any questions about this writing tip or any other writing matter, please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre manager

(Originally published in Crossroads December 14, 2017)


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: Author.

Carlson, E. N., Vazire, S., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2011). You probably think this paper's about you: Narcissists' perceptions of their personality and reputation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(1), 185-201.

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