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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Micro-Scale Writing with Title Words

Technical Writing: Micro-Scale Writing with Title Words

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org Technical Writing: Mirco-Scale Writing with Title Words Every student paper, professional article, and technical report has a title. Yet few scientists and engineers receive any coaching on how to choose the words in that title for maximum effectiveness. Science teachers can change that. A Title-Word Case Study Four researchers at Indiana University recently used a usage analysis of the words in journal article titles over two decades to plot "the cognitive structure of library and information science" (LIS) [see S. Milojevic, C. R. Sugimoto, E. Yan, and Y. Ding, "The cognitive structure of library and information science: analysis of article title words," Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 62(10):1933- 1953, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/asi/21602 ]. The Indiana team examined 10,300 titles of articles in 16 LIS journals published between 1988 and 2007. They analyzed which words occurred most often and which occurred together most often to map out a conceptual hierarchy for LIS. While their detailed co-occurrence results are not relevant here, their findings reveal much about STEM publishing. For example, one table (p. 1939) lists the most frequent words (ordered by frequency of occurrence) in their 20-year set of examined titles. The top four most common title words are no surprise, given the choice of target journals: 1. information 2. library 3. search 4. web Perhaps more remarkable is the prominence in this list of words related to science and the way scientific knowledge is shared: 5. science (and 9. scientific) 6. citation 28. publication 72. scientometric (quantitative measurement of the impact of scientific work). The global and social character of science is also reflected by the high frequency of: 45. community 46. international So aside from "normal" readers checking title words to find relevant articles, others check title words to detect trends in on-going research and to find (overlooked) clusters of related work. Crafting a good science title is influential and revealing --a micro-writing task worth doing well. Two Title-Word Techniques Be Precise Anyone who has seen a newspaper headline isolated from its story (as on an e-reader) quickly appreciates why title precision is a vital usability feature. Consider this case: Leader deposed What country--is this a domestic or an international story? What person--a well-known influential figure or the obscure head of something or some place small? What context--the leader of a private group, a political party, a legislative body, or a head of state? What urgency--did this just happen, or last month, or the anniversary of an historical event? One classroom example of how imprecise titles by students can waste intellectual opportunities is in science fair projects. The tempting cute slogan-title ("Spaced out") can completely obscure the rich insight of a student's careful research ("Geographic dispersion of plant parasites in the San Jaoquin delta"). Be Multi-faceted Most research involves many aspects of a problem, any one of which might be especially relevant to those trying to decide what to read. So good titles are not single-faceted. Consider the 2011 winning project at the Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair, where students used LED light to boost carbon dioxide production in yeast. Biostimulation identifies only the project's topic but says nothing about the approach taken. Biostimulation and industrial biosynthesis suggests the goal of the work and its (potential future) scale, but not the method. Near-infrared light biostimulation reveals the method used but omits the work's significance. Near-infrared light biostimulation: the optimization of industrial biosynthesis gives a more complete view of the project, while Near-infrared light biostimulation: a novel approach to the optimization of industrial biosynthesis is long but very revealing. It tells prospective readers the project's topic, stance (novelty), scope (industrial), and technique applied (near-infrared light), all with terminology that others are likely to use when searching for research relevant to their own work. Because they are ubiquitous, science titles are often overlooked as text worthy of serious, thoughtful planning. But you can help your students appreciate the ways (cited above) in which every title word is important.

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