Imagine that every book you picked up was titled with a single word. “Cats.” “Recipes.” “Clothing.” Pretty boring, right? You’d probably never read again in your life. But what if the titles were five sentences long? That wouldn’t be very interesting either! The truth is that crafting an essay title is trickier than it seems. You can spend several hours writing an essay, and then find that you can’t submit it because you just can’t get the title right. Have no fear, though; I’m going to walk you through 5 basic rules for writing essay titles that will wow every professor.

Why You Need to Write Good Essay Titles

“My essay is perfect. I’ve got that intro, that thesis statement, that awesome conclusion… who cares about the title?”

The answer is simple: your reader does. And yes, that includes your professor. When someone looks at an essay, the first think they’re going to see is your essay title. A good essay title can grab your reader’s attention and carry them through the rest of your writing; a bad title can send them running in the opposite direction (figuratively, ofc). Think of your title as a hook that will catch your readers and keep them with your essay.

Aside from hooking your readers, a good essay title will also give your readers a snapshot of what you’re writing about. It’s sort of like your thesis statement, except it’s more concise. Think of it this way: you’d be confused if you began reading an essay, and only were told halfway through what the essay is about. If you knew what you were going to learn about from the start, though, you’d be much more likely to understand what you read. That’s exactly what a good essay title does; it serves as an explanatory guide to the essay.

Oh, and one more thing: knowing how to title an essay is not only beneficial to your reader, it’s also an extremely powerful tool for you, the writer. We’ll discuss this more in depth soon, but you can use your essay title to stay on track with your ideas and to communicate your points effectively. Whether your essay is geared to inform or argue, it’s your title that does the initial work. As you read the 5 rules below, think of how you can use that power tool (a.k.a.title) to ace your essay.

Rule #1: Be Relevant.

Imagine you pick up a book, and the title is “Gender Identity in a Diverse World.” You’re fascinating by the variations in gender identity that have been emerging, and you want to know more. You open the book, and are hit with… a discussion of American history.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? To be honest, that example is a bit extreme, but you get my drift. When a title doesn’t match the content of an essay, all you do is leave your readers completely and totally confused. It doesn’t matter how eye-catching, mind-blowing, and awe-inspiring your title is; if it doesn’t relate to your essay, you’ve taken the wrong route.

What about your essay should you include in the title? For the most part, you’re going to focus on the content of your writing. If your essay discusses how European explorers related to the natives in North America, you can use this as a starter title: “Conflict and Collaboration between European Explorers and Natives in North America.” If you can’t figure out what the main ideas of your essay are, you probably should first learn how to craft an organized essay outline and thesis statement. Your essay title will mostly be based on the content incorporated within your thesis statement and your essay outline.

Sometimes, you can also include information about your methods within the title. For instance, if you conducted an analysis of T.S. Eliot’s poems, you can start your essay title with this: “An Analysis of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’”. When you discuss your methods in the title, don’t forget to still include some information about the content. Titles for essays must always have information related to the essay content, but they don’t always have to hint toward your methods. 

Rule #2: Determine the Tone.

Okay, so now your reader knows what you’re writing about. Great! However, you also want them to know what the tone of your essay is. You can think of the essay’s tone as its mood; it might be academic and serious, personal and emotional, or just plain humorous.

How do you know what the mood of your essay is? The purpose of your essay should be a good indicator of its tone. If you are writing an informative research essay for college, the tone would likely be formal. An argumentative essay might have a persuasive tone; a personal essay would be informal and emotional. Once you’ve established the tone of your essay, adapt your title to fit that tone.

Essay titles should always align with the mood of your writing. For instance, a research essay on personality might be titled, “Associations between the Myers-Briggs Personality Typology and Clinical Depression.” An argumentative essay on a similar topic might be titled, “Why the Law Enforcement Should Use the Myers-Briggs to Determine Eligibility for Police Officers.” Last, a personal essay might be titled, “A Reflection on How My Personality Changed Throughout College.” 

Rule #3: Use Catchy Words

No matter how informational your title is, you won’t attract any readers if it’s supremely boring. That’s where using catchy wording comes into play. Even if the tone of your essay is purely academic, you want to find a way to spice it up and get your readers to be curious enough to read the next 5 or 10 pages of material.

What do catchy essay titles look like? Most often, catchy words will include something surprising and original. You might combine a series of adjectives that don’t typically fit together, such as “Wicked, Sinful, and Oh So Happy.” Or, you can present your readers with a surprising image: “The Roar of the Insect.” When using a literary work, quotes will work well too. For example, in writing about T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”, you can choose a quote: “They Called Me the Hyacinth Girl.”

Important: Your catchy words should never be the only words to make up your title! Catchy words should be combined with informational, academic words using a colon and subtitle. See the next rule, Rule #4, for details on how to title an essay that incorporates both informational and catchy content. 

Rule #4: Use Colons to Create Subtitles.

Subtitles are a fantastic way for you to take your essay title from mediocre to awesome. There are two main methods of using subtitles: one, to expand upon your informational content, and two, to combine catchiness with specificity. Confused? I’ll explain.

Remember when, earlier in this article, I discussed how titles for essays should incorporate your main ideas, or your thesis statement? If you are only using one sentence in your title, you’re kind of limited in how specific you can get with your information. By combining two sentences with a colon, however, you can expand upon your information while still remaining grammatically correct. Think of the title I proposed earlier, “Conflict and Collaboration between European Explorers and Natives in North America”. If you are discussing Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and some other explorers, you can add a subtitle: “From Columbus to Lewis and Clark: Conflict and Collaboration between European Explorers and Natives in North America.” Or, you can add components from your thesis. For example: “Survival, Hope, and the Meaning of Life: An Analysis of Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ Nice, huh?

Now let’s look at the second way to use a colon and a subtitle: to spice up your title. We’ve already discussed the importance of using catchy wording, but you don’t want to sacrifice the informational quality of your writing when you try to sound cool. The solution? A subtitle. You would put the catchy line first, then a colon, and follow up with your informational words. For example: “Wicked, Sinful, and Oh So Happy: The Experiences of Ex-Religious Gay Men.” Or: “’They Called Me the Hyacinth Girl’: Romance in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’”. Your catchy line intrigues your reader, and your subtitle gives them a peek into what you’re writing about.

Rule #5: Treat it As a Work in Progress.

Whew, I’m done!

Well actually, not just yet. As we discussed earlier, knowing how to title an essay is a great way for you to keep the main points of your essay in mind. However, you also may decide to change some ideas within your essay as you work on it. That’s why you should always treat your title as a work in progress. Don’t just craft it and then forget about it; keep checking back up on it to make sure it still matches with the content and tone of your essay. As you gain more experience in crafting essay titles, you’ll find that the title and essay content will work hand in hand to help structure one another.

Happy titling!