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Writing a good title can require some thought. A title, while short, must help other users get an idea of what your question will ask so they can decide whether or not to click and read the entire thing. How should users of physics.stackexchange construct good titles?

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  • $\begingroup$ This meta math post contains a related interesting feature request. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Oct 22 '16 at 13:51
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An example

Suppose we want to ask how to find the electric field outside of a uniform sphere of charge Q and radius R. Consider these possible titles:

  1. Electrostatics question?
  2. Electric field from charge distribution
  3. Electric field outside of uniformly charged sphere

Title #1 is bad. A person reading this title knows only that the question has to do with electrostatics. Electrostatics is a very broad subject and the reader cannot tell from this title whether or not he/she will be able to provide an answer. Another serious problem with title #1 is that it is grammatically confusing. The title itself is a phrase rather than a full sentence, which is ok, but as such it should not have a question mark at the end. When the human language parser sees the question mark it gets ready to parse a question, but none is found. This wastes computing cycles of the brain, is unpleasant, and should be avoided.

Title #2 is better. Already from this title the reader knows that in order to answer the question he/she must remember how to compute electric fields given a charge distribution. That's probably enough for the reader to decide whether or not to click.

Title #3 is even better. The title itself provides all the information the reader needs to write a complete answer! This title respects the reader by offering him/her enough information to make a decision about how to spend his/her time just by reading your title.

Some bad titles (and how to fix a couple of them)

Here are a few question titles from the front page over the last two days:

  1. Ohms Law Question?
  2. Black hole (classical or quantum?)
  3. Boomerang physics and aerodynamics
  4. SU(3) antiquark triplet transformation
  5. Question about deriving Gauss's Law
  6. Need help solving physics problem

Let's start with title #1. This title suffers three problems. First, it does not give the reader enough information about what the question really asks. Here's the actual question text:

Since V=IR, if you were to have say a 5v source connected directly to ground, no components in the circuit at all, you would need to add resistance for the current to flow? Or is there something I'm missing?

While this is a question involving Ohm's law, we can be much more specific in the title. A simple improvement would be

"Ohm's law when voltage source is connected directly to ground"

From that title I immediately know why the person asking the question is confused, and I can decide whether or not I want to write an explanation about the limits of model equations and the realities of internal resistance of voltage sources.

The second problem with the title is that 1/3 of the words in it are wasted. Every question posted on StackExchange sites is a question, so there's no need to tell the reader that your question is a question in the title. One way to avoid this error is to ask yourself whether or not each word in the title conveys information to the reader. Telling the reader that your question is a question does not convey information.

The third and final problem is that the question mark should not be there. The phrase "Ohm's Law Question" is not an English question, so there is no place for a question mark.

Now let's look at title #4. This title mentions more advanced physics and as such it is easy to give it more lenience than is given to titles of more basic questions. However, title #4 suffers the same problems as others in the list. I can see that the question will have something to do with antiquark triplet transformations, but I have no idea what the actual question is. Here's a short excerpt from the question text:

So, what is the real reason we can't create an antiquark triplet that transforms like the quark triplet, i.e. if q is the 3 and transforms like...

Based solely on that excerpt we can already choose a much better title:

"Why can't we create an antiquark triplet which transforms like a quark triplet?"

Conclusion

Titles matter: they help readers decide what questions to click on and steer the reader's mind set as they read your question. Strive to make titles clear, specific, and concise. Titles which only state the general field of the question are not helpful. Titles which actually state the question are very helpful.

Quick tips

  1. Check that your title is actually a grammatically well-formed question if you put a question mark at the end of it.
  2. Review each word of your title and decide whether or not it conveys information to the reader.
  3. If your title is a phrase, re-read your question text and check that the phrase you choose is as specific as possible.
  4. You are not writing a suspense novel. There is no reason to hide the true nature of your question by writing a broad title and then specifying at the end of the question text. Common wisdom is to get the point as soon as possible, and nothing comes sooner than the title.
  5. There is no need to manually type tags into your title. For example, don't do this: "[Quantum mechanics] How do I compute hydrogen atom energy levels?". Just add the quantum-mechanics tag and leave the bracketed stuff out of the title.
  6. Capitalize only the first word and proper nouns in the title. Do not capitalize other words.

Homework for newer users

Review the linked questions above and edit their titles, making them better according to guidelines put forth in this post. This is good practice and helps the site :)

This answer could probably use some improvements to tighten the discussion. I welcome edits warmly.

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    $\begingroup$ Suggestion to the answer (v7): Add a TL;DR section in the beginning. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic May 8 '15 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ Add in a section on avoiding click bait type titles, especially for new users, some of whom may over value rep points. $\endgroup$ – user108787 Sep 9 '16 at 19:31

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