The first thing you notice about a film, a book, a videogame, or any other published work, is the title. It’s what immediately distinguishes one text from another. A good title can actually influence our decisions – a strong, catchy title will give you a sense that this book (or film, etc.) is worth your time, whereas something with a weaker title might make you feel unsure about trying it, even though the actual content might be better.
What should a good title do?
A strong title needs to do a number of things, in a very small space. It needs to at once grab our attention, give us a reason for continuing, and tell us what the text is about. You can think of it as a summary of a summary – it takes the entire book, and boils it down to a single sentence or phrase – for example, Lord of the Rings tells you immediately that the story is about mastery (or Lordship) of a ring.
The title doesn’t have to give a complete description – How a Hobbit Took A Piece of Jewellery to a Volcano Whilst His Friends Fought A Vicious War Against The Forces of Evil… may be a more accurate description of the plot, but it doesn’t have the same impact of Tolkein’s own choice.
What’s this got to do with dissertations?
Surely, a dissertation, an academic piece of writing, doesn’t need the same kind of titles? Whilst your dissertation is guaranteed to be read at least once (by the person marking it) a strong title will actually allow people to find your work and use it in future. When you’re writing an essay, you probably found yourself gravitating towards titles which were at once eye-catching and informative – the same will be true for future researchers writing in the same area you are today.
Also, a good dissertation title can be used by the marker as an early indication of the breadth and depth of research you’ve undertaken. Just as a strong introduction will draw your reader into the text, making them feel more inclined to go along with your arguments, so too can a strong title.
How should I write my title?
A Working Title
Once you’ve written your proposal, you should first find a working title that’ll allow you to be flexible in your research, whilst keeping your mind focused on your more specific subject. It can start very broadly (e.g., Research the Literature of the 14th Century) before shifting focus as you continue your research and find a more specific area you wish to explore (e.g., The Literature of the Peasantry, 1370-1382).
A word of caution – once you’ve decided upon the fundamental principles of your research and had your proposal accepted by a committee, you cannot change them, so make sure you’ve chosen a title that gives you freedom to work in an area you’re interested in.
The Finished Title
The difference between a working title and the final title comes down to what they’re used for. The working title will keep you focused and gain interest from peers whilst you’re writing it. When you’ve finished the dissertation, you don’t need a title to keep you focused, so you can choose something a bit more catchy. You should, however, keep some aspect of your working title involved – going back to the above literature example, your finished title might read Discourse and Discord: Understanding the Peasant’s Revolt. Peasant Literature, 1370-1382. Whilst this might seem at first a lengthy title, it gives the reader (and future academics) a hook (Discourse and Discord), tells them what they can expect from the dissertation (Understanding the Peasant’s Revolt) and what you are looking at more specifically (Peasant Literature, 1370-1382).
Anything else that might help?
You might find, when researching your proposal, that some of the articles or texts you read don’t answer all the questions you ask of them – you may even feel there are gaps in the current debate for your subject. It’s a good idea to include aspects of this into your working title, which can then later transfer to your finished one. Alternatively, you might find a quote from a text or researcher that you think either summarises your own argument, or that goes against your argument and would give you the chance to argue against them in your dissertation. You can use quotes very effectively as a way of showing your reader not only the depth of research you’ve conducted, but also as a hook.
Above all, a good dissertation title is original. It tells the reader what your dissertation is about without giving everything away (summarising your overall piece), and it draws your audience in, so your dissertation gets read instead of someone else’s – so they can see the quality of yours is better than theirs was anyway!