Advice for writing better note titles
People do not realise how important document titles are. I've said before, You should give your notes titles. There are many examples:
- People who make no attempt at all to write titles, and can be found with dozens of documents all named "Untitled". This person often cannot find what they're looking for and blames their computer.
- People who try very hard to name their documents but do not understand what makes a good title. I found a wonderful guide explaining in depth how to add a security certificate to a Windows virtual machine if it was running on a MacOS host, and the author titled it simply "Windows VMs". The guide did not explain anything else. I only knew the guide existed at all because a coworker gave it to me directly, it would have been impossible to find otherwise.
Thus, when you have a good document within a PKM system or even a team wiki, how do we write a good and useful title for it?
Qualities we want:
- Searchability. One should be able to find a note again by searching for it's Title, rather than its contents.
- Accuracy and Honesty. A title that doesn't reflect it's content is a form of dishonesty, and is why clickbait is so hated. Titles are a promise of good content.
- Clarity. We should be able to parse a title easily and quickly to determine if it is the note we want. Milliseconds matter. Concise writing takes longer to write, but is worth it.
It's worth being aware that the goals and process for writing titles for Notes have very little resemblance to writing Headlines for Stories, Titles for Blog Posts, or Subject Lines for Emails. It in some ways resembles writing titles for Essays.
Guidelines (not rules)
Write in assertive positive form. “X causes Y” is usually better than “X fails to do Z”. For example:
- Bad: Doom scrolling doesn't make you smarter
- Good: Doom scrolling makes you stupid
In writing this way you may also learn to be more assertive and sure of yourself.
Phrase unproven notes as questions. Despite my previous advice to be assertive, if you cannot prove something beyond your own doubts, you should phrase it as a question.
- Bad: Ability is inherited
- Good: How much ability is heritable?
If you are on Windows, you cannot have question marks in filenames. You'll have to infer that a file is a question, and perhaps rely on
title: attributes if you are using Obsidian or Logseq.
Use consistent and correct spelling. I have been tempted many times to ignore spelling errors, but this will bite you in future when you attempt to use the search feature in your notes. Take the time to use a spellchecker and fix errors. For the same reason, you should use only a single region's spelling. Don't mix American and Australian English.
Link to the note. By considering how another note is related to the current note, this puts you in a mindset to consider a usable title. For example,
- There was an existing document,
Run VM using Vagrant. But, I couldn't use this document as it was written for users running x86 Macs and I had an M1 Mac. In response, I wrote a document
Run Windows VM on M1 Mac using Parallels, then added a link to my document in the original.
- I had a note with reasons for using apps like Obsidian, called "Reasons to use a linked note system". This was precise, but felt weak and uninspiring to use whenever I tried to link it. Changing it to an imperative, "You should link your notes" made it much more fun to put in other documents.
Write the document. Titles tend to emerge from the document as it is written. You may realise on writing the body, you cannot deliver on the promise of your original title. Changing the title then becomes obvious. You may also realise on writing the title, that no single title can encapsulate all you have written. This is a good indicator that your note should be broken apart into atomic notes.
Consider characters you can't type. I am unable to easily type “Gonçalo”. So my note for such a person has an alias “Goncalo”.
Look at similar notes. One way to find them is in a Taxonomy of note types. You may notice interesting and useful conventions, such as How To guides beginning with the words “How to–”.
Search for it. Instead of opening a folder to reach your document, try using search to find it. The simple act of typing words into a search box leads you to think about what words might be suitable for your title.
Rewrite your titles. No matter how smart you think you are, your future self will come up with and encounter brilliance that present you is not capable of. For instance, I thought myself clever for coming up with this title:
- Focus on the process, not on goals
But I later rewrote it to be this:
- Travelling hopefully is better than arriving.
In addition, use a tool that does not punish you for changing your titles. One such tool is Confluence, which changes your URL if you update the title.
These are guidelines I've seen recommended by others, which I believe you should approach with great caution.
Move important words earlier. What is important in one circumstance may not be in another. Consider these two sentences:
- Front end codebases should not use Typescript
- Typescript should not be in front end codebases
Front end codebases is more important in the first, and Typescript is more important in the second. Sometimes it may be worth fussing over moving words earlier, but you can waste a great deal of time without making meaningful progress.
Arbitrary title length limits, such as "Keep titles under 10 words". have been a waste of time in my experience. Yes, it can be argued there is great satisfaction in reducing a title down to a catch-phrase or concept-handle like length. Where we waste time is the number - hours can be lost musing whether the number is 10 or 12, or if a very complex title can be honed down sufficiently.
Use Numbers. Some believe that numbers in titles makes them more interesting and assertive. I believe them to be clickbait-y and low class. Consider these examples:
- 73 thoughts I had while watching Game of Thrones
- 11 ways to build muscle and lose fat
- Read faster in just 5 steps
They have some advantages, namely that they give you some idea of how large the note is. On the downside, they reek of lower class writing, and they are also not very Searchable. Who can remember to search for the number "73"? And every time we change the body we have to update the number!
Exaggerate and appeal to emotion. There are many words that are charged excessively with emotion, to the point of being upsetting or aggravating.
- Boomer advice you need to unlearn
Name drop. It has become popular in PKM blogs and videos lately to hijack the fame of others by mentioning their names in titles. You should keep this to a minimum as doing this tends to stifle your own thinking.
Other people's thoughts
In putting together this note, I read many others. Here are some of the best:
Bryan Jenks - A structured approach to processing diverse inputs - Bryan Jenks and his Obsidian KMS
- Prefer note titles with complete phrases
- Prefer positive note titles to promote systematic theory
- Note titles are like APIs
University of Minnesota - Writing an Effective Title