Can you imagine a world where everything was named as blandly as possible?
“Come here, Pet.”
“Hey, Maternal Grandmother, could I get your recipe for Casserole?”
“Book about a Long Journey is pretty much the best thing I’ve ever read.”
“I love shopping at Clothing Store at Mall—its Regular Jeans are to die for.”
Meh. Yawn. Zzzzzz.
Now you understand the crushing ennui your teacher feels flipping through a stack of essays entitled “Narrative Essay” or “Essay 4,” “Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,” or worst of all, the dreaded “Untitled.”
Boring, right? No wonder it takes three weeks to get them graded and handed back!
So how do you make your essay the shining gem in the rough, the beacon that keeps your teacher from falling asleep in yet another puddle of coffee and tears during hours-long grading marathons?
We’ll get there. First, let’s discuss why essay titles matter in the first place.
Why Are Essay Titles Important?
The title of an essay occupies a pretty sweet spot: front and center, first page. This is a position of prestige and privilege. It just begs to be read.
Old-timey cover page optional.
Don’t waste this opportunity to make a good first impression!
Much like a hook sentence, a title should snag the attention of your readers and make them want to read more.
Most importantly, the title—even a short one—can give readers a lot of context about an essay. Good essay titles not only identify the essay’s subject, but they can also give readers clues about important elements of the essay:
- tone (Is it serious or irreverent?)
- structure (Is it argumentative? Are you comparing and contrasting?)
- angle/stance (Are you in favor of something or against it?)
So what goes into a mind-blowingly good essay title? Keep reading to find out!
What Are the Essential Elements of Good Essay Titles?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to titling essays. While a one-word title might work for some essays, others practically beg for long, descriptive ones.
That said, there are a few qualities that most good essay titles share:.
1. A good essay title identifies the subject.
It probably seems obvious that a title should give the reader at least a hint about the essay’s subject, but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t! I’ve edited plenty of essays with titles like “Analysis Essay,” “History,” or “Assignment 5.”
Not only are these boring, but they’re completely vague and nonspecific.
2. A great title establishes the tone of the essay.
In addition to telling readers what an essay is about, really great titles also help to set the tone or mood of the essay. A forceful, direct title is perfect for an angry rant or a somber piece of persuasion.
Titles with puns or other fun wordplay, on the other hand, suggest that the reader can take the piece a little less seriously.
3. Good essay titles are specific.
It’s possible for a title to establish both the tone and subject … but in a vague way. For instance, “A Scholarly Examination of Chinese Art” identifies a subject and a tone, but if the essay actually focuses on fifteenth-century Chinese pottery, specificity is lacking.
A more specific essay title would be “A Scholarly Examination of Fifteenth-Century Chinese Pottery.”
4. A great essay title is attractive to the intended audience.
Last but not least, a title should be attractive and interesting—but most importantly, it should be attractive and interesting to the audience for whom it was written.
For example, a playful and punny title might fall flat for a stodgy, humorless professor—you know the type.
In this case, it’s better to be straightforward and descriptive—but that doesn’t have to mean boring.
On the other hand, your creative writing instructor would probably appreciate a bit of clever wordplay.
This aspect of title-writing requires you to know your audience and make a judgment call regarding the type of title your readers will find engaging. But it’s totally worth it when you snag a big, fat ‘A,’ right?
Now that you know what goes into a good title, let’s look at some strategies for writing titles that meet these criteria.
Tips and Tricks for Writing Good Essay Titles
Now that you know the different components of a solid title, how do you actually write one?
Here are a few tips and tricks to help. For each of the following tips, I’ve also shared one or more relevant examples from the Kibin essay database.
Use subtitles to your advantage
Many essay titles have both a main title as well as a secondary title that elaborates a bit on the first part.
Consider the late David Foster Wallace’s essay Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise. Alone, neither part of that title would meet all the criteria I listed earlier. Yet together, they create a title that’s almost irresistible. (What was “nearly lethal”? I have to know!)
Essay database example: Wrap It Up: An Ode to the Burrito
Sum it up
Another strategy for writing good essay titles is to choose two or three words that sum up the main ideas of the essay—bonus points if these words seem oddly juxtaposed as this creates interest and attraction. Just be sure that they’re relevant.
While they aren’t essays, Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel and Chuck Klosterman’s essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs are both fantastic examples of this titling strategy in action. How could you pass those up?
Essay database example: Scalpel, Forceps, Empathy: How My College Experiences Are Preparing Me to Become a Competent Doctor
Take a page (well, a phrase) from someone else’s book
Sometimes, great titles are right under your nose—maybe even in the text you’re analyzing. An especially provocative or descriptive line can really set the tone for your essay and save you a bit of brainstorming.
And sometimes, you may find inspiration from a piece of writing that you aren’t writing about. Consider Joan Didion’s famous essay collection and the essay of the same name, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The title of this work was inspired by the last line of William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.
One thing to remember, though: if your snippet is a direct quotation, be sure to place it in quotation marks, as in the example below.
Essay database example: “Dark of the Invisible Moon”: Imagery in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Get punny (if appropriate)
Clever wordplay has its place, including in essay titles. That said, there’s a fine line between funny and corny. Not all topics or essays are suited for a funny title. Use your best judgment, and keep your audience in mind.
Consider Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea & of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists & Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. The title is cheeky yet descriptive and suits the subject well.
You can also balance your wit with a more buttoned-up subtitle to ensure that your work is still taken seriously. For instance, consider David Walter Toews’ book titled The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us about Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society.
Essay database example: Secrets of the C.I.A.: America’s Premier Chef’s School
Sometimes, the best essay title is simply a provocative statement that makes the reader feel just a tiny bit defensive or that speaks to an opinion the reader also holds. This titling strategy works especially well for argumentative and persuasive essays, in which you simply state your argument in the title. Pamela Druckerman’s Why French Parents Are Superioris a good example of such a title.
However, other types of non-argumentative yet controversial statements can also work. Consider Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, a title that would have been particularly controversial in 1927, when it was originally published, or Mathew Ingram’s Is the Internet Making Us Smarter or Dumber? Yes.
Essay database example: Why Donald Trump Will Never Be President of the United States
Bonus tip: Study great titles
If you really want to improve your title-writing game, figure out what makes you want to read an essay or article. Scroll through an online magazine that tickles your fancy—The New Yorker, the Opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, Rookie, and Rolling Stone all publish great essays—and figure out what makes you want to click on a title.
This I Believe is another great source of inspiration, especially for titling personal essays. Check out the titles of the most viewed essays, and consider which ones you want to read and why.
Ultimately, writing good essay titles takes time and practice. In fact, some bloggers spend halfthe time it takes to create a piece of writing working on the title.
While this is definitely overkill for a school assignment—after all, you’re not necessarily competing for attention among thousands of other writers—it gives you an idea of just how important the title is.
But most importantly, you have the strategies you need to give your essay the name it deserves. And if you’re not sure if your title fits your paper or really reels the reader in, ask a Kibin editor for an honest opinion—we’re always happy to help!
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by Chelsea Lee
You’ve burned through the midnight oil. You’ve written the last word, double-, nay, triple-checked the reference list, and as the sun clambers over the windowsill you face the last remaining question: What to call this work of staggering genius? You are tempted to play the facetious card and call your paper “A Study of the Effects of Red Bull on a Person's Ability to Form Coherent Sentences,” but the long-term implications of such a title for your academic success give you pause. What else, then, shall suffice?
The title of your paper is incredibly important. A paper’s title not only sets readers’ expectations for what the paper will be about but may also determine whether it gets read at all—or with how much trepidation versus excitement it is greeted.
Below are five general principles that, if followed, will produce a great title:
- A great title summarizes the main idea of the paper. Your title should identify the key issues under investigation as well as how they relate to each other. The title “The Effects of Transformed Letters on Reading Speed” achieves this goal, whereas the title “Transformed Letters and Reading Speed” identifies the elements but misses the relationship.
- A great title has a length of 12 words or fewer. If your attempts to create a summarizing title have produced a five-line manifesto, try to pare it down to the essentials. Keep in mind that 12 words is a guideline, not a hard ceiling.
- A great title includes only words that contribute meaning. Phrases such as “A Study of,” “An Experimental Investigation of,” or “The Results of” are like empty calories (not unlike most of what’s in that Red Bull...). Make your title easier to digest by cutting the fat. “The Results of a Study of The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Plant Growth” can slim down to “The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Plant Growth” or even the jazzier “How Heavy Metal Music Stimulates Plant Growth.”
- A great title gives away the ending. If your title is in the form of a yes–no question, try rephrasing it so that the question is answered or the answer at least alluded to. This primes the reader for deeper comprehension. If Philip K. Dick had written for an academic audience, you might be perusing Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Empathy in Nonhuman Species before bed tonight. (Click the image of the book cover at the right to read about his actual book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.)
- A great title says it with style. Academic writing must be precise, but it needn’t be fusty. Consider these titles of real published psychology articles: “The Unicorn, the Normal Curve, and Other Improbable Creatures” (Micceri, 1989, Psychological Bulletin) and “Pride, Prejudice, and Ambivalence: Toward a Unified Theory of Race and Ethnicity” (Markus, 2008, American Psychologist). These titles pique readers’ interest while also conveying essential information about the content of the article.
Armed with these principles, you are now ready to give your next paper a great title. You can also read more about titles in the Publication Manual in section 2.01 (p. 23).