Beyoncé, Cute Kittens, and Titles That Draw You In

Silly season is approaching — that late-summer period when so little is happening in the serious worlds of politics and business that newspapers start running front-page stories about flying-rodent attacks and ice cream socials for dogs. Except the definition is breaking down: Politics in the Trump era is simultaneously absurd and deadly serious year-round, and academe may be one of the few professional enclaves left where summer brings with it an across-the-board vacation (let the enraged comments disputing this notion commence).

Still, silliness has been on my mind lately as the students in my thesis writers’ workshop debate a controversial topic in scientific writing. No, it’s not whether the first person is acceptable: In the three years I’ve been teaching this course, a sentence like “We probed the samples at intervals of five seconds” has gone from divisive to universally embraced. But last week, a debate raged about paper titles. Namely, the students disagreed on whether to aim for “funny” titles.

Some felt strongly that in the avalanche of information faced by scientists today, funny titles are a great tool for grabbing readers’ attention. Others argued that information overload is exactly why humor should be avoided: We’re busy people, and jokes are distracting.

When I looked for a professional opinion to help break the tie, the closest I came was a survey of style guides by Helen Sword, in her book Stylish Academic Writing. The style-guide authors were also split, though I was surprised by this when I saw her slightly different wording — asking about “engaging” rather than funny titles. Who could be against the latter? Fifty percent of style experts, it seems:

sword graph for lf (1)

Clearly, there aren’t many journalists among them. We aim to engage, though sometimes obliquely: My favorite-ever headline was from a New York Times silly-season article (published in May — see my point above) about popular baby names. In 2005, the 70th most popular name for girls born in the U.S. was Nevaeh – or “heaven” backwards. The front-page headline read, “And if It’s a Boy, Will It Be Lleh?”

The subjectivity of humor presents another problem for funny titles. I’m both a sucker for puns and keenly aware that many people hate them. My father recently sent me a draft of a paper about managerial accounting that begins with a limerick; his research partner, who composed the rhyme, thought it very funny indeed; it was not. And many of the literary allusions employed by writers aiming to induce a good chuckle fall flat in a different culture. Not to mention that a handful are overused. I used to work at a newspaper where “Only connect” was banned. Too many English-major headline writers had struck on E.M. Forster’s admonition in Howards End when trying to entice readers into pieces about cellphone operators.

But writing instructors should be teaching our students strategies for enticement — even in the cases of highly technical scientific papers. So I usually force mine to write funny titles for their theses, accepting that these might never make their way outside our classroom walls. I figure that if you can’t make a joke about your topic, you don’t really understand it.

In fact, I make them write several titles: Alongside the funny one, an alarmist title — something you might read in a tabloid (sometimes it takes a while to explain to Generation Z what a tabloid is). And finally, a clickbait title. The students always ace this part: “We Sought to Minimize Operating and Switching Costs at a Data Center — and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next;” “This Version of a preCICE Adapter Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity;” “I Survived the Living Hell That Is a Sound Lateralization Experiment.” You’d be tempted to log into JSTOR for that, wouldn’t you?

And so I’d like to propose a silly-season activity for Lingua Franca: Take to the Comments section with the clickbait title of your latest paper. The occasional limerick will be accepted, too.

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