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Better Titles

- January 24, 2011


John linked yesterday to a post by Jeff Ely on “Cheap Talk “:http://cheeptalk.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/titles/ about the political economy of titles. This is a topic dear to my heart. I am notoriously bad at titling (as illustrated by “this train wreck)”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=325065. Seriously, the best ones were plays on Samuel Huntington, and I did “that”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=164773 “twice”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1960344. Titles based on wordplay can be clever but are almost never great (I once wanted to write a response to Malcolm Gladwell’s _Blink!_ titled _Oops!_ , which I still think could have made a nice contribution to my down payment).

Anyway, the advice given by Jeff Ely is:

bq. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get started on a paper, think about the title. If you can’t come up with a short title for it then its probably not worth writing.

The illustrative example is that a paper titled “Law and Finance”:http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=florencio_lopez_de_silanes is more likely to draw attention than “Valuation and Dynamic Replication of Contingent Claims in a General Market Environment Based on the Beliefs-Preferences Guage Symmetry”:http://www.maik.ru/abstract/mathphys/2/mathphys2_2p161abs.htm.

At a basic level, I agree. Article or book titles give authors the opportunity to signal their message and their ambition in very few words. The choice of these words matters. I would need a good bit of convincing before reading anything that has “In an Era of Globalization” in its title. Nothing good is signaled by devoting scarce title space to clichés.Yet, signaling ambition requires subtlety.There is a fine line between a pretentious title and an ambitious one. “A Theory of Justice” is ambitious. “On Justice” is pretentious. It presumes that we are interested in whatever random ruminations on a topic the author has to offer. This is of course precisely why “On Bullshit”:http://www.amazon.com/Bullshit-Harry-G-Frankfurt/dp/0691122946 is so brilliant.

In my mind, the very best political science book titles communicate ambition while not simply stating the topic area that is being studied. There also should be a sense of what is being studied or what an argument is. _Who Governs?,_ _Clashes of Civilizations_, _Seeing Like a State_, _Bowling Alone_, and _Home Style_ come to mind. (Unlike Ely, I also don’t mind question mark titles.) In this sense, I don’t like “Law and Finance” as a title: it signals to me that I would start reading a textbook or a review article (which this article is not).This is all a matter of taste of course, so I’d appreciate your thoughts.

The image in this post comes from the terrific blog “Better Book Titles.”:http://betterbooktitles.com/ If you can do anything like this with a political science book, I’d consider putting it on the Cage.

**Update:** Kieran at Crooked Timber is already “having a go at this”:http://crookedtimber.org/2011/01/24/better-book-titles/ (and so are the commenters). Dan Wilbur of Betterbooktitles e-mails me to say that he has already done “Blink”:http://betterbooktitles.com/post/790512409/blink , “Guns, Germs and Steel”:http://betterbooktitles.com/post/937185481/jared-diamond-guns-germs-and-steel , and “Plato”:http://betterbooktitles.com/post/1091491938/socrates