Must-read: Patrick Dunleavy: “Choosing Useless Titles”

Must-Read: Patrick Dunleavy: Choosing Useless Titles: “The really useless title must be as similar as possible to a thousand others…

…or so obscure that its meaning completely evades readers. It could also miscue or mis-direct readers…. The top five most popular versions are:

  1. A ‘cute’ title using ‘ordinary language’ words with a clear meaning, but taken radically out of context… the author should know what it means, and as few other people as possible…. ‘I introduce my work in such esoteric ways, because I am so much cleverer than you’. It also ensures that anyone interested in the topic covered would be very unlikely to input these words into a search engine….

  2. A ‘cute’ title that is completely obscure. This is a variant of (1) where even the language the author includes in the title is incomprehensible….

  3. An ultra-vague, vacuous, completely conventional, or wholly formal title, preferably one that could mean almost anything. To be fully obscure here it is vital to pick vocabulary that is as general or unspecific as possible and is capable of multiple possible meanings…. ‘Accounting for ministers’ could be about politicians running government departments in parliamentary countries; or alternatively, a manual for vicars or priests doing their income tax returns.

  4. An empty box title…. For example: ‘Regional development in eastern Uganda, 1975-95′ gives you a location, a date range and a topic. But the key message is still: ‘I have done some work in this box (topic area), and I have some findings. But I’m not going to give you any clues at all about what they are’….

  5. The look-alike, empty box title… where the paper title… is devoid of any distinguishing or memorable features of its own. For instance: ‘John Stuart Mill on Education’…. ‘Key features of capitalism’….

  6. The interrogative title, which must always end with a question mark. Again vagueness is an asset in seeking obscurity…

April 22, 2016


Brad DeLong
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