Strategies for Writing Effective Titles, Part 2

Today, we’ll be sharing additional strategies for writing effective titles as part of our new writing series, What’s in a Name? How to Write an Effective Title. Just a quick reminder that this series is based on a workshop the Academic Medicine editorial staff developed, so the terminology and examples we use are from Academic Medicine. However, you can apply these strategies to articles you’re writing for other journals, other scholarly publications, grant applications, conference abstracts, and more. You can read “Strategies for Writing Effective Titles, Part 1” as well as the other posts in this series here.

What are some strategies for writing effective titles?

Use subtitles to provide clarity. If the opening phrase or clause in a title is intended to capture the reader’s attention, the subtitle should provide information about the content of the article.

Seven Dirty Words: Hot-Button Language That Undermines Interprofessional Education and Practice

“Rising to the Level of Your Incompetence”: What Physicians’ Self-Assessment of Their Performance Reveals About the Imposter Syndrome in Medicine

In the first example, the opening phrase grabs readers’ attention. They might wonder, “What are the seven dirty words?” The subtitle then clarifies that these “dirty words” are terms related to interprofessional education and practice that the author considers hot-button or controversial. The opening phrase might also make readers think of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (which the author used as inspiration for this article), again catching their eye and enticing them to read on.

In the second example, the opening phrase is a quote from this qualitative study. A brief, eye-catching quote from an interviewee or focus group participant can enhance a title if it’s relevant to the study and findings. In this case, the quote is pithy and illustrative of one of the study’s themes. The subtitle then explains what the authors studied and how the opening quote relates to academic medicine.


Capture readers’ attention, but use a scholarly tone. While catchy titles capture readers’ interest, it’s important to think about the audience and tone.

Original title: “Don’t Kill Granny”: A Consensus on Geriatric Competencies for Graduating Medical Students

Final title: Keeping Granny Safe on July 1: A Consensus on Minimum Geriatrics Competencies for Graduating Medical Students

The original title, “Don’t Kill Granny,” captures readers’ attention, but the tone isn’t quite right for a journal. This article is about patient safety on July 1, which is the day new first-year residents start working in the hospital. “Don’t Kill Granny” was probably a quote from a participant in this study, but it’s not scholarly. “Keeping Granny Safe on July 1” conveys a similar idea (and still mentions Granny!) and is more appropriate in tone for the audience of Academic Medicine.


Sometimes break the rules! In some cases, effective titles break the rules we’ve discussed.

Fake It ’Til You Make It: Pressures to Measure Up in Surgical Training

Is There Hardening of the Heart During Medical School?

These titles lack specificity and key search terms but are highly engaging and communicate clear ideas. The editorial staff debated editing the second title, but it represented the topic of the article effectively and conveyed a strong feeling about medical education, so we decided to keep it. In the end, it was the right decision–this article attracted a lot of attention, including from the media.


Tomorrow, we’ll kick off our writing exercise so you can practice what you’ve learned. Remember to check back then for the next post in this series. You can find the complete What’s in a Name? How to Write an Effective Title series here.