Titles are important. I rarely stoop to judging a book by its cover, but I don’t hesitate to judge them by their titles. I once even wrote an essay for the campus newspaper about how I bought Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason just because it didn’t have a subtitle. If you want to read that particular piece I added it to the blog here. Why I thought the campus community would find my obsession with titles and subtitles in any way interesting kind of baffles me now. Never mind! Move on.
In my days as a university press officer, I wrote tons of titles. Titles for press releases, news items, web pages, brochures, slogans. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding the perfect title. It captures the gist of the article or whatever it is you’ve written, it’s short, succinct, and has a catchy lilt to it. You know the reader will be dying to read on, and your painstakingly crafted prose won’t just be skimmed over like so much whey in a cheese vat.
Title writing is tricky, though. If the magnificent title bears little resemblance to the content that follows it (see above title), you lose credibility. If that becomes a habit, your byline won’t be worth squat. If you go the other direction and write a really detailed, careful, accurate-as-can-be title, chances are it will be as catchy as a nosebleed and the reader won’t bother to go any further.
I still get daily e-mail alerts from a press release service (Newswise) I used when working at the university. A couple weeks ago, this title caught my eye:
Giant Extinct Rabbit was the King of Minorca
What a title! I was dying to read more about this extraordinary rabbit and how he could be king and extinct at the same time, but the release was under embargo for a week, meaning that only card-carrying, bonafide journalists had access to it. Time flew by, I flew to California. The embargo was lifted. Finally I had the chance to read the press release. It was great! Chock full of exclamation points!
“This massive rabbit, aptly named the Minorcan King of the Rabbits (Nuralagus rex), weighed in at 12 kg (26.4 lbs)!”
“When I found the first bone I was 19 years old, I was not aware what this bone represented. I thought it was a bone of the giant Minorcan turtle!”
Sure, anyone could have made that mistake! Totally understandable! Wait, do turtles have big bones?
The rabbit’s neighbors subjects included “a bat, a large dormouse, and the above-mentioned giant tortoise.” The big bunny had lost the ability to hop, and had reduced visual and hearing acuity, according to the release. “So although it might be assumed that this rabbit must have had huge ears, that would be wrong; N. rex had relatively diminutive ears for its size.”
So let me sum it up: 3-5 million years ago an overweight rabbit lived on the island of Minorca. It was unable to hop, nearly blind and deaf, and had some odd but probably cute neighbors. In the late twentieth century a teenager dug up its leg bone, thinking it was a turtle. Some taxonomist determined it was in fact a rabbit, thought its size was incredible and named it Rex.
The paleontologist was ecstatic. “Quintana is so excited about his new find he thinks N. rex might even make a good island mascot, ‘I would like to use N. rex to lure students and visitors to Minorca!’”
Well, I’m tempted. I’d take a shovel. Maybe I’d get lucky and dig up the remains of a giant toothless beaver that couldn’t swim.
Other writers got a kick out of this, too, because they had a field day with their own titles. Here are a few:
Giant Rabbit Fossil Found: Biggest Bunny was “Roly Poly” (National Geographic)
Five-million-year-old monster bunny couldn’t hop (NewScientist)
Newly Discovered Pre-historic Bunnies are Totally Creepy (Hypervocal blog)
Bigs Bunny: How giant rabbits SIX times the size of modern cousins limped across the earth … as they were too huge to hop (Daily Mail)
Here’s another classic title I saw the other day:
Social Media Help Moms Keep Their Hair
I read the release – well, ok, the first paragraph – and no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with postpartum baldness. There are people who really tear out their hair, it’s a kind of obsessive-compulsive-type disorder called trichotillomania, but the article isn’t about that, either. It’s just about how Facebook is great for moms because you can still have adult interaction and nobody can see that you’re still wearing last week’s sweats and snacking on the kids’ goldfish (the crackers, not real fish. Yuck.). Social media as the ultimate solution to the Bad Hair Day.
There is so much (or so little) in a title.