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November 24, 2012

Beyond Acceptable: Writing Effective Academic Essay Titles

Image Source: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/a2ww/files/writer.gif


One of the weakest things I frequently discover in your academic papers are the titles themselves. We should spend a little more time revising titles before we print the final drafts and submit them to our professors.

Some things you should never do include . . .

. . . boring your audience (the readers of your essay) with unoriginal and uninformative titles such as "Essay 1," or "My Narrative Essay," or "Descriptive," or "Assignment for Dr. Hobbs," and the like. Putting such a title is almost as bad as not having one at all (another "no-no").

The web is full of good advice on writing titles for student essays using the academic voice.

For example, Brad Hyde of the Pearson Adult Learning Centre, suggests the following "rules for the title" on his page "Tips for Writers" (full link HERE):
The essay has a title.

The title should NOT be a sentence (at the ALC during the test session). Traditionally, titles are not sentences.

Every important word is capitalized in a title. The Important Words in a Title (also, the first word is capitalized) THE IMPORTANT TITLE (block capitals)

*Titles should not be confusing or too general or too far from the inside content.

*Match title to content.

*A good title should symbolize the entire essay (show its spirit to the reader).

*A good title is attractive and interesting and might be imaginative.

*Good titles are concise (but still understandable).

*The title is centered above the essay and two spaces are left beneath it.

*Do not repeat the assigned topic as your title as a rule. Make your own.


In "How to Write a Proper Essay Title," eHow contributor Krystin Fuller suggests the following three steps for "writing an argumentative, persuasive, or a literary essay" title. "Sometimes," she says, "the only thing lacking may be a proper title to draw the reader/professor's attention. Grab the reader's attention and solidify your point with a catchy, well-written title." Therefore, when you are done with your final draft, try Krystin's three steps:

Step 1: After writing your essay, make an outline of the main points you covered.

Step 2: Check to see if any of the main points connect with one another, if this is true, your title should focus on that main point.

Step 3: After finding a main point, think of a creative way to make the title stand out. For example, if the paper was about the symbol lion reappearing throughout Shakespeare's play Henry V, a title could incorporate the word lion. For example, "Was Never a Lion Raged More Fierce."

SOURCE: Fuller, Krystin. "How to Write a Proper Essay Title." eHow. 26 September 2008 [http://www.ehow.com/how_2113609_write-proper-title-essay.html].


Even the famous "CliffsNotes" publication has advice for writing effective titles. At their website (found HERE), they suggest:

While you're writing an essay, if you have a good idea for a title, write it down. But often the best time to choose a title is when you've completed a first draft and read it over. You'll have a more complete picture of your essay. Be creative, but don't overdo it. For example, if you're writing a paper about deforestation, “ Knock on Wood” might seem clever, but it doesn't accurately fit the topic.

I would especially reiterate their point about writing the title (or, at least revising it) AFTER you've finished writing the essay. Like the introduction, which frequently needs to be reworked when your paper's done, you need to properly introduce your reader(s) to the topic of your essay. Your first shot is with the title. CliffsNotes continues:

Use good judgment when you choose a title. Consider the tone of your essay and your audience. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” might be a good title for a personal essay on the loss of your gullibility, but think twice before using it as the title of your analytical paper on Shakespeare's character Macbeth. (It's true, however, that one instructor who had received dozens of papers with unimaginative titles reacted well to the student who called hers “ Dial ‘M’ for Murder: The Character of Macbeth.”)

The best advice is to take a middle road. Avoid both dullness and strained cleverness. Consider a good quotation from a work you are writing about, an effective phrase from your own essay, or an appropriate figure of speech:

* “Sleep No More”: The Role of Macbeth's Conscience
*RATHER THAN Macbeth's Conscience

*“I'm Nobody”: Finding Emily Dickinson in her Poetry
*RATHER THAN Emily Dickinson and her Poetry

*Gaining Safety or Losing Freedom: The Debate over Airport Security Measures
*RATHER THAN Airport Security Measures

*Only Skin Deep?
*RATHER THAN The Importance of Beauty to Today's Woman

*Fit to be Tried: An Examination of the McNaughton Rule
*RATHER THAN Judging Legal Sanity

SOURCE: CliffsNotes.com. "Titles." 28 Sep 2008 [http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/CliffsReviewTopic/topicArticleId-29035,articleId-29031.html].


The writing center of George Mason University (full link HERE), offers the following advice on writing essay titles:

* Write the title last. * One function of the title is to intrigue the reader. * The title should have the same tone as the essay.. * The title should be relevant to the specifics of the essay.

NOTE: The title, the beginning and the ending of any piece of writing are "privileged" places in the text. You, as the writer, have the reader's most complete attention at those moments. Take advantage of that fact. Do not insult the intelligence of the reader by announcing what you will be doing or by pointing out what has just happened. Give the reader credit for having the good taste and intelligence to appreciate your most direct and polished writing. Revise the introduction and the conclusion especially aggressively.

Source: "Introductions, Conclusions, Titles." The Writing Center of George Mason University. 28 September 2008 [http://www.gmu.edu/departments/writingcenter/handouts/introcon.html].


Image Source: http://www.snowcrest.net/pamelaj/MLA.jpg

After the title is chosen and typed, remember that, in our courses, we are using the MLA-style of formatting. That means that your titles should NOT appear in a font that is different or bigger than the rest of the text. There should be NO extra spacing either above or below the title. MLA-formatted papers are simply double-spaced everywhere--no exceptions. There should be NO boldfacing in the title. Use underlines, italics, or quotations marks ONLY in the places of the title that mention the title of another published work and no where else. For example:

OK: Understanding Choices in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

NOT: Understanding Choices in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

OR: Understanding Choices in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

OR: Understanding Choices in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

OR: Understanding Choices in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

Don't put the whole thing as a quotation either.

Remember, your title should be original and informative. It should not only interest the reader, it should give some indication of what your thesis is. You might think of it as an even SHORTER version of your thesis statement--in this case, written as a fragment. It should be concise and interest the reader. Give the reader some reason/excuse to read it! Using a colon to make a two-part title is fine, even desirable, but do not create a title that goes OVER two lines of text.

Hope this helps. I look forward to seeing better academic essay titles!

As ever,

Dr. Hobbs

Posted by lhobbs at November 24, 2012 05:40 PM

Readers' Comments:

Hi EFL folks!
When a Chinese student is writing in English, s/he is actually organizing writing details in Chinese, not in English. That does no harm to writing. It simply cannot be avoided.

As long as a good essay is written in good English, who cares if it is in Chinese-minded English.


Yes, but what does this have to do with writing a good title to an Essay in Standard English?

Posted by: lee hsieh at October 25, 2008 07:24 PM

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