26 August 2010

Exciting title: Descriptive title

A headline from The Onion that I really like:
A Statement Followed By A Question Separated By A Colon: An Effective Journalistic Technique?
We have the same colon-related cliché problem in academia. There is an unspoken rule that every conference paper title has to be both engaging and descriptive, for example
Meet the Beetles: A Prosopographic Study of Entomological References in Budge Collection Papyri 34 and 35

It's obvious I just made that one up but you can see the problem. The part of the title before the colon sounds intriguing, fun and not too technical, and the second part, not so much. It's a habit that we just can't quit. A couple of years ago, I set myself the goal of avoiding double-barreled titles but I fail at least half the time (even on this blog).

It's very hard to craft a title that explains what's in an article and makes someone want to read it so we fall back on the humble colon to let us write two, a jokey title and a descriptive title. If you think about it though, the colon is really a pretty arrogant little punctuation mark. It basically says, "I'm not done yet so you'd damn well better let me finish what I have to say."  Do you really want that in your title?

I question whether everything has to be laid out in the title of an academic work. Are scholars really so impatient that we can't be bothered to read an abstract? If so then maybe academic books should have covers like Harlequin romance novels. The front of my dissertation, which is about eighteenth-century philology in India, could feature the scholar Khan-e Arzu on horseback with his chisled torso showing through the tatters of his shirt. He would be carrying Persian dictionaries in one arm and a comely young bazaar-lad in the other. On second thought, maybe I just need a better title.

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