How to Write the Perfect Essay Title
Most of your academic life, you will be given a title on which to write an essay. This is a skill that you acquire over the years, developing a methodology of response. However, when you are asked to select or create your own essay title, perhaps for a longer piece of work such as a dissertation or thesis, you suddenly realise that what might have seemed greater freedom becomes instead a challenge: you have a blank sheet of paper and simply do not know where to begin to choose a topic and word an interesting title. This is perfectly understandable, as most learning is guided and you are being asked to ‘fly solo’, but there are certain guidelines which can be applied to help you to choose a title that will be interesting and appealing to both you and the reader.
Focusing on the type of essay you're writing:
First of all, you need to focus on what kind of essay you are going to write. Clearly, a descriptive essay will need a very different title from a critical essay or an evaluative essay, for example. Decide which type of essay you intend to produce before you even begin to think about a title.
Having decided what type of essay you are going to write, you need to jot down as many ideas related to the main theme as possible. In other words, you are working almost in the opposite way to your normal practice of responding to a question or topic by listing ideas as a reactive process by allowing the ideas to generate a title. In most cases, this will give you a strong essay title that engages with your ideas so you are accomplishing two things at once.
Choosing a good essay title:
Most academic essay titles have an implicit or explicit question. In other words, they will ask you, directly or indirectly, to consider a topic. An example of an explicit question in a title might be:
‘Do you agree that Victorian Literature is reflective of the era in which it is set? Discuss this with reference to works by a number of authors of the time’.
If the same essay were expressed implicitly, I might look something like this:
‘Victorian Literature reflects the era in which it is set’: discuss this with reference to chosen authors of the era.
You can see that the basic content of both titles is exactly the same and the same sort of essay will be expected in response to both. However, the direct question gives the writer a good starting point in responding to it by providing a point to argue ‘for or against’ and it is therefore always worth considering including a question in your essay title as the response will take you a long way towards the formulation of your thesis statement. You need also to decide whether or not your title has more than one part to it as these do.
Similarly, if you are intending to focus on a particular aspect of a topic, you need to include this as a ‘key’ word in your title. You will be very familiar with this process but again, in reverse - you will be used to finding the ‘key’ words to address when writing an essay as identifying these assists you to answer the question correctly. Now, you will be using these words yourself to focus your essay and help define the points you want to make. Some frequently used key words are:
Obviously, these are just a few of the many words you might choose to assist in creating a good essay title - there are many more. Questions which include these words explicitly define the type of essay that is to be written, examples might be something like:
‘Compare the effectiveness of two different writers on the creation of the welfare state in Britain.’
‘Evaluate the contribution made to the study of psychoanalysis by the early work of Sigmund Freud.’
In both of these questions, you can see that the key words used help you to focus attention very precisely on the particular aspect of the topic you intend to write about and, as with the inclusion of a question, assist with the formulation of a thesis statement.
If you're not conducting research:
The essay titles we have discussed so far have been largely of the sort you might use for an academic work of the type that involves research of some sort. However, it is very likely that you might be asked to find a title about which to write a descriptive essay or an imaginative or personal piece. In fact, it is probably true to say that these areas of writing are more likely to involve you in the process of evolving a title, since they are, in a sense, more creative. If you are asked to find a title of this sort, again try to write a list of your ideas about the topic because these might generate a title for you. This time, however, your focus needs to be very much on capturing the attention of your reader, just as a headline does in a newspaper, to make them want to read on. Examples of titles that might be applicable to each of the above are:
- Descriptive title – ‘A Paradise on Earth’ (this invites the reader into not only your descriptive piece but also your conception of what constitutes ‘paradise’ and how this differs from the reader’s own)
- Imaginative title – ‘The World in Fifty Years’ (this again encourages engagement with the reader’s own ideas and gives you scope to base your imaginative ideas on things around you)
- Personal title – ‘The Most Difficult Decision I ever made’ (here you tell the reader a lot about yourself in the title and encourage them to proceed by stimulating interest).
Remember that the main objective of every essay title is to help you to examine a topic of your choice in the way you wish and to engage the reader’s attention sufficiently to make them, like Oliver Twist, ‘want more’!