Somewhat like a billboard, an essay title is an advertisement. A successful title makes people eager to read on and discover what your essay has to offer. The best essay titles, then, are both creative and informative. Readers not only want to know what your essay is about. They also want to be inspired.
The first step to creating a good title is to find a few words that describe the topic of your paper. If your instructor has given you a research question, you can pick some words from there, but a better place to look is your thesis statement (once it’s written). What is your argument about?
Let’s say you’re writing an essay about the potential benefits of electric toothbrushes.
At first the number of potential key words may seem overwhelming:
manual, electric, pros and cons, bristles, benefits, plague, gums, cavities, pressure, braces, cost, timer, flossing, bad breath, brands, safety.
Depending on what we want to argue, the first step is to choose the most appropriate key words. Here are some examples of basic titles:
The Safety Record of Electric Toothbrushes
The Surprising Benefits of Electric Toothbrushes
Manual or Electric: Which Toothbrush is Better at Fighting Plague?
Of course this is all very basic yet, but it’s a start. And who knows—perhaps this outlandish example may come in handy when your writing skills land you a job in advertising…
Focusing Your Title
Once you’ve figured out a few key words, the next step is to make your title as specific as possible.
Here are some sample titles that sound dramatic, but are lacking in detail:
Hitler’s Final Days
David Livingstone on Safari
Fundraising for Terrorism
Each of these titles can be more specific:
Fear and Paranoia in the Führerbunker: Tracing Adolf Hitler’s Final Days.
David Livingstone’s Impact on Christian Missionary Activity in Africa
The Financial Impact of Decriminalizing Marijuana
Fundraising for Terrorism: How the Columbian Drug Trade Benefits Rebel Groups.
Always ask yourself if your title sufficiently captures the ideas in your paper.
You should capitalize key words in your title. As a general guideline, we provide here the MLA rules for capitalization (also covered here).
According to the MLA rules, you do not need to capitalize the following parts of speech unless they are the first word in your title or come right after the colon:
- Articles (a, an, the)
- Prepositions (e.g., with, in, of, beside)
- Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet)
- The to in infinitives (e.g., to love, to be)
The Creative Touch
In academic writing, the emphasis is on being informative. Since you’re writing for a general audience (and not just your instructor), try make your title as clear as possible.
In a less formal context, you can be more dramatic or enigmatic. Whatever you do, though, avoid corny and melodramatic titles such as the following:
To Be or Not to Be
Into the Mist
Of course, creative titles are often on the cusp of being lame, so it’s a matter of knowing your audience and acting accordingly.
If you’re feeling experimental, you could use a question as a title:
Why Can’t We Impeach the President?
Whatever Happened to the Novella?
Be careful though: using a question will make your tone more casual.
Using a Colon
Academic titles often employ a colon to connect ideas and phrases. The usual method is to insert a creative phrase or short quotation before the colon:
Suspiciously Delicious: A Brief History of Poison
“These Romans are Crazy”: The Representation of Julius Caesar in Asterix
While such introductory phrases add flavour, they are easily overused. That’s why some people consider this use of the colon an abomination. Be careful, then, not to abuse this device.
The term metadiscourse refers to language that describes the process of thinking and writing. Often you don’t need to draw attention to the act of doing research:
With metadiscourse: My Meditations on the Effects of Mediated Bargaining at Three Carefully Selected Australian Universities.
Without Metadiscourse: The Effects of Mediated Bargaining at Three Australian Universities
The exception is if you’re trying to be clever:
An Analysis of Dialysis: Recent Advances in the Treatment of Kidney Failure.
Of course, such titles can easily seem corny.
Crafting a good title is not easy. It’s often best to add the title at the very end, once you have a clear idea what you’ve actually been meaning to say. So as you put the final touches on your essay, spend some time crafting a great title. That way you will make a great first impression.