I finished week eight of Wendy Belcher’s workbook, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. This week focused on improving the title, introduction, and conclusion for my article-in-progress. The work was very necessary.
I struggle with titles. I’m envious of my colleagues who are able to invent compelling titles out of thin air. I still dislike my dissertation title, which turned out to be, “Inventing Indigeneity.” I improvised the title at the last moment and slapped it on the cover page. My dissertation examines how people invented indigeneity, but the title bores me. I’m changing it for the book manuscript.
I’ve struggled with my article title, too. Having a working title is important; it keeps us focused on the subject at hand. The title of my article has changed as I’ve been writing as my focus and argument have become sharper and clearer. The initial title was:
"The Central American Exposition of 1897: German Popular Anthropology in the Americas"
Looking at my original article title, it is broad, vague, and devoid of verbs. The title also not suggest an argument, nor does it indicate that the Central American Exposition took place in Guatemala.
I’d revised the title once I started writing, as I changed my focus from German popular anthropology to representations of race and science. I’d found a quote that I liked from Karl Sapper’s narrative about the Central American Exposition. He wrote that the exposition, despite its shortcomings, was nevertheless of “great interest to the Geographer and Ethnologist.” I revised the title to include the quote, which made the new title:
“Of Great Interest to the Geographer and Ethnologist: A German Scientist at the Central American Exposition in Guatemala in 1897”
This title was a bit better. I managed to indicate that the fair took place in Guatemala and that it involved science. However, it fell short of the compelling title I wanted.
From reading the workbook this week, I learned a lot about writing titles and why mine didn’t seem very interesting. Wendy Belcher provides sound title writing advice, including:
- Be specific—avoid being too broad or vague
- Name the topic
- Suggest the argument if possible
- Embed keywords
- Don’t be overly dense
- Include a verb if possible
- Avoid trying to be witty
- Avoid a quote
My working title, “Of Great Interest to the Geographer and Ethnologist: A German Scientist at the Central American Exposition in Guatemala in 1897,” flaunts several of these suggestions. As much as I like the quote as part of the title, it doesn’t tell us much. It doesn’t tell us why a failed exposition would interest a geographer and ethnologist. I realized that the quote would work better as part of the introduction than the title. After removing the quote, I was left with:
"A German Scientist at the Central American Exposition in Guatemala in 1897"
Boring. Massively boring. There’s no action here. I decided to add some verbs and suggest the argument. My argument is about how Karl Sapper viewed (or read) the displays of indigenous material culture at the Central American Exposition differently than the fair’s organizers intended. In other words, he may have misread them. I also wanted to show that Karl Sapper did not merely attend the Central American Exposition; he visited it, evaluated it, and took notes on it. I was missing the keywords about race and science in the title as well.
My boring title became much more interesting when I inserted verbs and specific details:
“A German Scientist Visits a World’s Fair: (Mis)reading Race and Science at the Central American Exposition of 1897 in Guatemala”
I’m still not sure that this will be the final title, but I think it’s good enough for now.
I also revised the introduction and conclusion this week. I know that some readers will only read the introduction, so I wanted to improve it as much as possible.
My initial introduction from week one was purely narrative:
The Central American Exposition flung open its gates to international audiences on March 15, 1897 in the capital city of Guatemala to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the nation’s independence. At the appointed hour, President Reina Barrios pressed a button that sent a telegraph over newly installed electrical wires with news of the exposition to distant regions of the globe. Parades and military bands played the new national anthem and accompanied the president, the exposition’s central committee, and other important guests to the fairgrounds. According to the official bulletin of the central committee, more than 40,000 people attended the exposition on the opening day.
Narrative is fun, but unhelpful for readers in article aiming to inform them in an efficient way.
Taking Wendy Belcher’s advice, I wanted to start with a gripping first sentence. I then wanted to include more relevant information, the main argument, and the evidence. I also wanted to avoid droning or boring readers with unnecessary details. Once I finished revising it, the introductory paragraph was a compact 225 words.
One of the things that I find fascinating about the Central American Exposition is that it failed as a world’s fair. Most world’s fairs scholars analyze successful expositions that drew millions of visitors. The Central American Exposition exceeded its budget, which triggered a national financial meltdown. The hoped-for millions of visitors never came. Despite these problems, Karl Sapper argued that the exposition was of great scientific interest. I wanted to readers to wonder why a failed exposition might interest a German scientist. I revised the introduction to include some narrative, set up that contradiction, and suggest the argument:
By all accounts, the Central American Exposition failed spectacularly. Swept up in the global craze for world’s fairs, Guatemalan political leaders had decided to host a grand international exposition to introduce the world to Central America, then a little known region. They had planned the fair with high hopes and expectations, but its bloated budget had spiraled out of control. In fact, the government had spent so much money on the exposition that government employees went unpaid for five months. Many of the exhibits remained unfinished weeks after officials inaugurated the fair. Worse, the torrential summer rains created a muddy mess of the fairgrounds; only a handful of visitors braved the stormy weather to attend. Nevertheless, on a rainy June day in 1897, Dr. Karl Sapper and his colleague, zoologist Dr. Augustin Krämer, strolled through the fairgrounds. Sapper, a renowned German geographer, visited the exposition to assess its displays from a scientific perspective. He explored displays of Central American coffee, natural resources, fine arts, and industrial machinery. Despite the financial debacle and crushed hopes, Sapper believed that the fair had been a good idea; it was, in his words, “of great interest to the geographer and ethnologist.” (Emphasis in the original.) Sapper, however, interpreted the exposition far differently than fair organizers anticipated because his assumptions about race and science differed from those of fair organizers.
I’m still drafting the conclusion, but it is also getting better, as I’m thinking about how to restate the argument, zoom out from this particular exposition, and talk about how thinking about this particular exposition tells us something about people thought about race and science in the nineteenth century. It is not quite good enough to show blog readers yet.
Next week, however, is all about getting feedback. Onward!