Written by John Thomas Brittingham. Media by Michael Trieb
“I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning”
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”
“When You Are Engulfed in Flames”
These are great titles. They are bold. They are inviting. Some might even say that they are epic. These are great titles, and they tell you almost nothing about the content of the book.
The question of the title is the question of the name. Is the name playful or is it serious? Is the name informative or is it evocative? Is the title boring or fun? This last question is arguably the most important. Would you rather read a book named “An Episodic Recounting of the Daily Lived Experience of a White Anglo-Saxon Male Professional Writer in New York” or a book called “When You Are Engulfed in Flames”? The first might be a more accurate description of the subject matter but the latter is damn sexy. I want to read the second title if only because the first sounds like every late 20th century memoir ever made.
Words that Point and Words that Shout
When it comes down to it, titles serve two purposes. First, they point to or indicate their contents. Indicative titles tend to be helpful when you are looking up books or articles as sources for research. If you’re writing one of the billion papers there are on Descartes’ Meditations, you don’t want to wade through flowery titles just to get to the article(s) that will actually help you. Side Note: as someone who teaches Major Issues in Philosophy, I can’t tell you how many times the titles (or non-titles) of papers on Descartes drive me up the wall. The man has a name just dying to be made fun of, turned into a pun, whatever. Just actually be creative instead of writing something like “Descartes’ Meditations” as your title. Indicative titles are incredibly helpful and keeping in mind the kind of paper you’re trying to write is crucial here. Nobody wants to read a paper called “The Madeline Masterpiece” if they don’t know the reference to Proust. Likewise, no one is going to want to read a novel titled “White New Englanders Brood About Their Personal Problems and Drink a Lot.” We much prefer something that catches our fancy.
Taking into consideration the problem of a boring title that points to the content and a flowery title that prompts one to read on, one has to take into account one’s audience. Indicative titles are great if you are only interested in connecting people with information but they fail miserably if you want to inspire readership or demonstrate an understanding of the context one is referencing. If you want your audience to have a sense of the world in which your writing exists, you will need to use an expressive title. That is, you need a title that shouts. Rene Girard is a religious studies scholar who is very old and writes about mimetic desire and the scapegoating structure of western religious practices. If that last sentence was a title, it would be a very boring one. Girard does not have boring titles. Rene Girard writes books with titles like “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” and “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.” These books shout at you. They call you to pick them up and find out what they’re all about. They express something of the feeling of what it’s like to read them, to swim in their contents. Yet, both of these books are works of academic religious scholarship. They aren’t novels, or pamphlets, or anything meant to be entertaining. They’re meant to convey to you information researched by their author.
So this leaves us in something of a bind. If you entitle your work something indicative, you stand the risk of boring potential readers (including your professors). But if you title your work something flashy, you stand the risk of being overlooked. What is a creative yet substantive writer to do?
The Almighty Subtitle
Enter the subtitle. A good subtitle can save your neck. Crafting a good subtitle can allow you to have your expressive title and be indicative too. Most of the time, when working with a subtitle, one is able to combine a flowery title with a rather detailed subtitle. For example, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” is a masterful combination of creative title with meticulous, content-oriented subtitle. The title alone wouldn’t make a reader aware of the book’s subject (apart from actually reading the book) but the subtitle turns the book into something other than an ambiguous scene of gustatory violence. However, a good subtitle can also enhance the evocative elements in the title itself. The best example I can think of here is “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.” It is a title/subtitle combo that takes the idea of a simple monster forward by embedding it within the Promethean mythos inherited from the ancient Greeks.
All of this is to say that, if you want to have your creative cake and indicatively eat it too, a good subtitle is your friend.
Writing research papers tends to be a rather boring/anxiety inducing affair. Hopefully, with a few clever Google searches and uses of a thesaurus, your titles can be something more creative than “Descartes Meditations: I think therefore I am.”