To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.
For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.
Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.
Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.
Personification structures a notion in terms of human characteristics, abilities, motivations. It’s the kind of metaphor that allows for drunk air or educated stem cells or radio bursts that are burglars. Continuing with the Nature theme, today I offer a few titles that involve scientific thingamajigs behaving like people (unlike most of my other articles on personification that gave examples from literature).
I first give the title in italics, then my non-metaphorical rephrasing (that often uses phrases from articles’ subtitles).
- Nature title: Antibiotic resistance has a language problem
My title: Failure to communicate about vaccination issues.
- Molecular memoirs of a cellular family
Discerning cell lineage while keeping spacial relationships intact.
- Radio burst caught red-handed
Source of radio burst from deep space identified.
- Salmonella identified as prime suspect in epidemics that devastate Aztecs
Salmonella caused catastrophic epidemics amongst the Aztecs.
- Where Ceres hides its water
Location of water on Ceres pinpointed.
- Education for stem cells
Stem cells guided through various phases.
- Bold fish run the school
Bold fish lead their shoal (A red herring! The title is literal).
Is there any case in which you prefer my title? I’m guessing not. The original personifications animate the imagination while preserving some relationship with the actual content: even if you can’t guess exactly what’s going on, the keywords give you an idea.
It could be worse.
Indeed, sometimes the title is a fixed, worn phrase that is either applied wholesale to an unexpected subject, or tweaked slightly (and applied to an unexpected subject). In those cases, like with the last example above, you can’t be sure whether the keywords apply literally or metaphorically.
Titles are in italics; subject matter in parentheses.
- A matter of time. (Quantum physics, time crystals.)
- Huffing and Puffing. (Cigarettes.)
- Imperfect storm. (Hurricane Harvey.)
- Made of stone. (On taking down statues of people with doubtful human rights records.)
- Robots stop to smell the flowers. (Robots gather plant data)
- Spot the difference. (Not a visual game, but cancer research.)
- The next best thing. (Cancer models.)
- Troubled waters. (Clean water.)
- Universal truth. (Antihydrogen that holds the Universe together.)
- Divided by a common purpose. (Getting vocal over funding.)
- Mould money. (Disc of mould that was part of the penicillin batch used by Alexander Fleming auctioned off, a play on old money.)
- Combine and conquer. (Having two graduate degrees, a play on divide and conquer.)
Would you have guessed the subject from the title? And if not, does that leave you feeling your attention has been slightly manoeuvred, if for a good cause?
I’m reminded of a line from Sol Stein’s book, Stein on Writing:
The point to remember is that the primary function of a title is not to convey as much meaning as to sound enticing and if possibly exude resonance.
He’s talking about books, but why should science be any less enticing?
N.B. Title commentary and article summaries are my own—I have no evidence of intent from the editors of Nature, nor am I an expert in the various scientific fields. I welcome alternative interpretations or insights.