Titles: Topics and Subjects at the Top of the Page

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

If you couldn’t already tell, this blog post is all about titles. How to make ‘em, what to do with ‘em, and what they are for. Ever since high school, titles have been one of the most effective ways I get myself to care about my writing. In undergrad, I would come up with all sorts of fun titles, usually a pun or pop culture reference, just to get my creative juices going, and to get myself thinking critically about the material. It was one of the ways I made academic writing—which I hate—more interesting and (frankly) more bearable. Some of my favorite’s included references to Star Wars’ terrible dialogue writing (“Now this is podracing”) when I wrote a paper for a film study course analyzing the podracing scene from The Phantom Menace, and a reference to The Princess Bride’s RUSes in a paper for my Linguistics course all about agglutinative languages (languages that make new words by tacking on more and more suffixes and prefixes), that I cleverly titled “Words of Unusual Size.” While making fun titles is a great way to get the gears turning creatively, it doesn’t always do much to describe your paper to your reader, especially if you are like me and are in grad school and don’t get to have fun anymore.

The University of Michigan has a great resource for how to create compelling academic paper titles. The academic title consists of three parts: the hook, key terms, and a location. The hook is the part of your title that will give you the most creative freedom. It is the element of your title that draws in your reader, what makes them want to read your paper in the first place. Try to pick out the most interesting part of your paper or try to distill your paper down into one or two words to help guide your hook. I wrote a paper last semester about Moll Cutpurse, a fascinating character from Renaissance England. The paper was all about how Cutpurse represented gender presentation that was inherently transgressive in just about every way imaginable. For my hook I chose “Transgressive Sexuality.” Key terms are helpful for describing what your paper is about to your reader. They are usually terms essential to the topic of your paper, and if you are looking to publish, using key terms in your title will make your paper easier to find in a database. Think of your title as a sort of logline of your paper, the briefest of elevator pitches. They should give your reader an immediate understanding of what the purpose of your essay is, and the concepts you will be discussing in your paper. These are very rarely interesting, and typically very literal describers of the contents of your paper. For example, returning to my Moll Cutpurse example, for my key terms, I chose “Cross-dressing and Transvestitism.” The location gives context for the concepts being discussed and the scope of the paper all at once. What you use as your location will vary depending on what you are writing about, the genre you are writing in, and the discipline you are writing from. For an English paper, this might look like the time period in which a text was written, or if you’re taking a New Critical approach, it might just be a character’s name and the title of the text in which they appear. If you are writing a more scientific paper, it will probably look more like the data sample you are studying. For my Moll Cutpurse paper, my location was “Jacobean London”

As an example, a full title might look something like “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime: Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism in the Context of Defoe’s Puritanism.” Something like that, if you were to write a paper on Robinson Crusoe. Of course, my full Moll Cutpurse title was “Transgressive Sexuality: Cross Dressing and Transvestitism in Jacobean London.” Or, if I were to draft a scientific paper, it might look something like “AI Doctors: Cancer Screening and Machine Learning in Patients 65 and Up.” In the first example, “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime” acts as our hook, describing the basic premise of the paper in an interesting way. “Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism” are obviously our key terms, and “Defoe’s Puritanism” is the location, giving us all the context, the reader needs to understand exactly what this paper is going to be talking about. In the second example, the locations of the hook, key terms, and location are in the same place, performing all the same jobs.

This method of academic title creation is clearly a versatile and useful tool to keep in your back pocket if you ever get stuck. I’ll be using it myself on my final papers this semester. But don’t let this method stifle your creativity! This method is just one of the many ways to create a title, and it is by no means the “best” way. There’s an adage in writing pedagogy that says, “the best way to learn to write is to read.” That be made even more specific for titles: “the best way to write titles is to read titles.”  But sometimes, if you just need to get yourself interested in writing, just coming up with a creative, fun title does the trick.


Works Cited

Writing, Sweetland Center of. “How Do I Write a Great Title.” University of Michigan https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/undergraduates/writing-guides/how-do-i-write-a-great-title-.html. Accessed 10 March 2022.

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