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Composing effective node titles

by davido (Archbishop)
on Mar 30, 2004 at 06:27 UTC ( #340870=monkdiscuss: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??

As long as I've been on the Internet, whether as a Usenet reader, email recipient, or PerlMonk, I've seen what many here see regularly: Poorly composed node titles (or email subject lines, or Usenet subject lines). Such titles inhibit readers from finding the posts that interest them, and from filtering out those posts that are not of interest. If you want your post to be read by people who care what's written (don't we all?) choose an effective node title.

A node title should concisely convey the subject of the node. If the node is a question asking how to sort in reverse-numeric order, the title ought to make that clear. If the node is a meditation on the merits and pitfalls of using map in void context, the title should make that clear as well. And if the node is about betting on basketball games, its title should go a step further by prefixing the title with "OT: "... the abbreviation that many here in the monastery expect to see for Off-Topic posts.

Node titles should be crafted with care and thoughtfulness. A reader should be able to read the node title and already formulate an accurate opinion as to the node's content.

The following is an example list of bad node titles, along with a description as to what is bad about them. They're not intended to pick on anyone. But read them with a smirk, because I'm sure you've all seen them before and thought, "Argh!":

  • Newbie question - This, in no way, describes the content of the node, other than to state it's a question by someone new (presumably new to Perl). Since about 50% of the questions posted to this site are by "newbies", you've said nothing unique about this particular question.

  • Simple question or Another question or Perl question - Again, if it's posted in Seekers of Perl Wisdom, we probably already know it's a question. The level of simplicity of the question is irrelevant. And since this is a Perl-oriented site, saying it's a Perl question is a bit vague.

  • Hash question, or Array question, or Syntax error - Again, don't you think that's a little vague? (You don't have to answer that out loud.)

  • Help please, or Urgent help needed! - Ask a good question, give it a good title, and you'll get your answer, no need to grovel or demand anything in the title. Just tell us what you're trying to ask.

  • Windows vs. Linux? - This one should probably be marked with "OT: " for Off-Topic, if all it is is a discussion of the merits of different OS's. On the other hand, if it is Perl related, it would still need to give more details.

Why is it important to compose accurate, concise, and descriptive titles? Several reasons, some of which I'll enumerate below:

  • See the "Search" box at the top of your screen? Lots of people use that before posting questions, to try to research answers for themselves. The "Search" utility searches node titles. If every discussion thread were named, "Newbie question", it wouldn't do any good for someone in search of an answer to search for nodes with "deleting hash elements" in their titles. Title searches only work well when applied to well-written titles. For the record, there's a second search utility here at the Monastery, known as "Super Search." It can search node titles and/or node content.

  • Click on Newest Nodes (do it in a separate browser window so you don't lose this fabulous node)... See how many nodes there are? This is a pretty high-volume website. Wouldn't you like to know ahead of time, without clicking on each and every node title, which nodes might be of interest to you, and which ones you might just want to skip past? Effective node titles save everyone time on skimming through the sea of nodes for ones that are of interest or relevancy. They also help to draw people interested in your topic to your node. Imagine if the dictionary contained 35,000 definitions, but in place of the word being defined at the head of each entry, they all started with "Definition."

  • Now, in a separate browser window, look at Nodes to consider. Chances are at any given time there will be at least a couple of nodes being "considered" for title change. This is because a monk of Level 6 or higher has decided the node in question's title is so poorly composed that it needs to be changed. Now a bunch of other Monks are going to vote to either keep it the same, or edit it with appropriate changes. And then a janitor will have to go to all that work of editing the node's title. They do this for many reasons, including the two I've listed above. Do you really want to create all that work for others here, and at the same time draw negative attention to your node because your title just says, "Newbie, help!"? Ok, we don't really mind the work, but who wants to have his/her node "considered" for editing? Probably nobody.

Now for a small proposal to all moderators (Friar - Level 6 and above):

When considering a node for title editing, be sure to do two important things: First, give a recommendation on what the new title should be. Second, send a courteous and brief /msg to the person whos node you're considering to explain why the node is being considered for editing. Obviously we can't /msg Anonymous Monk, but everyone else is fair game.

I personally appreciate it when people /msg me with heads-ups on my nodes. Many times, the node's authors will make the necessary changes themselves. Other times, at least they'll have the opportunity to learn where there is room for improvement next time. Be courteous; kindness is a virtue that PerlMonks espouse. And a gentle reminder is more likely to be heeded than a hostile rant.

Speaking of rants, this is the end of mine.

But for additional reading, please do see How do I post a question effectively? from About the PerlMonks FAQ. Therein you'll find all sorts of great tips on how to get along in the Monastery.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully you'll take it as a good natured commentary on how to improve the look and feel of the Monastery.

Cheers!

Update: Implemented a few suggestions from castaway. Thanks!


Dave

Comment on Composing effective node titles
Re: Composing effective node titles
by Callum (Chaplain) on Mar 30, 2004 at 10:04 UTC
    Great post, two additional comments I'd make -- stopping "bad" titles before they get posted, and other uses for the titles.

    The people most likely to submit posts with bad titles are also, in general, likely not to read the FAQs or other discussions on how to post well, in particular they are probably very new to PM, possibly new to online discussion in general; and although there may be guidelines on good posting available, the underlying problem isn't cussedness on the part of the poster, or even a belief that the title they're using is "good", rather I expect it is that it hasn't occured to them that the title of their post is an issue.

    Is there virtue therefore in asking them the question -- is this a good title? -- for example, text adjacent to the title box when they post their Q? Whilst this won't help with the general never-reads-the-FAQs problem, it would mean that they are aware that there is a potential issue there, and may make them think about how they want to title their post, while at the same time being unobtrusive and ignorable.

    Also, in titling (and re-titling) nodes we need to remember their use in searching, and that in particular searching is more reliant on keywords, and less on context, than a human is when scanning titles. To this end, as far as possible, titles not only need to be meaningfull to humans, but are also easyily findable by a keyword search -- not that you should be appending a selection of keywords to the title of course! Rather that we need to remember that, for example, a human reading a title can map "apache" onto "webserver" far more efficiently than a search engine can.

Re: Composing effective node titles
by phydeauxarff (Priest) on Mar 30, 2004 at 15:41 UTC
    ++ on the great post.
    davido, you should submit to have this added to the faq
Re: Composing effective node titles
by artist (Parson) on Mar 30, 2004 at 16:57 UTC
    Few examples of authors who consistently post with good titles can become a good show-case for this purpose.
Re: Composing effective node titles
by Anomynous Monk (Scribe) on Mar 30, 2004 at 19:49 UTC
    Ok, we don't really mind the work, but who wants to have his/her node "considered" for editing? Probably nobody
    Somewhat ironic to see:
    Considered: DaWolf Edit: Promote to Tutorials
Write the message first, then the title
by Wally Hartshorn (Friar) on Apr 01, 2004 at 15:37 UTC

    One aspect of writing messages and emails that I've always thought contributes to poor titles is this -- the first item we ask the user to write is the title. The title, in effect, is being written as a summary of a message which the user hasn't composed yet. This can be difficult, particularly because I often find that what I really want to write or ask becomes more clear during the process of writing it.

    I suspect that if the "title" box was made to be the last thing that the user wrote, that might increase the chances of them writing a title that more accurately summarized what the message is about.

    It would be a simple change to implement as an experiment. Just flip the order of the boxes and see what happens. (The title box could even be hidden until the user clicks the "preview" button, but that might be overkill.)

    Wally Hartshorn

      Hear! Hear!

      I've always had trouble writing good subjects, and I wonder if this is to blame...

      I'm going to try experimenting with this idea.

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