Best Foot Forward: How to Write a Compelling Essay Title

Here’s an analogy for English students: the title of your English essay is like the pair of shoes you wear to a job interview. Just like those interview shoes, your title should be sleek, complementary, professional, and impressive. It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but it’s a big part of your reader’s first impression of your work, your ideas, and you.

So how can you come up with a title that’s interesting, descriptive, playful, and effective? I’m going to introduce you to a handy formula that will ensure you never write a bad English essay title, courtesy of my friend and colleague, Jonathan Forbes. I call it “Title Magic” because I was told that “The Colon Method” would not appeal to a broad audience.

Title Magic abides by the following principle: in order to write an amazing English essay title, all you need is

Something creative: something descriptive.

Take the title of this post. Its “something creative” is “Best Foot Forward,” an idiom that most English-speakers would probably find familiar, and a play on the title/shoe analogy I introduced at the beginning. And its “something descriptive” is just that: a description of the “how-to” article I’ve written on writing a killer English essay title.

Now that you’ve been introduced to Title Magic, let’s work our way back to English essay titles that don’t follow this method. We’ll then apply Title Magic and see how much better the English essay titles sound in comparison.

Based on my own progression as an English student and my time as a teaching assistant, and I’ve come up with various English essay titles and grouped them according to my interview-shoe analogy. The first group is what I like to call, “Thanks for your time” titles. They’re the titles that glaze over your reader’s eyes as they imagine that you hated the assignment and wonder if you put more thought and effort into the rest of your paper. It’s also the kind of title that will situate you in the “B” or below grade range straight away; you won’t necessarily stay there if your argument and analysis are excellent, but in the mind of your reader, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of your paper. Here are some examples of “Thanks for your time” English essay titles, and reasons why they fall flat:

  • Essay prompt #1
  • English paper
  • Moby Dick
  • John Milton
  • [did not give the essay a title]

Not only are all of these essay titles extremely vague, they also give the impression that the writer isn’t even trying. Is that how you want to come off to your reader (who is also probably your grader)? That you weren’t invested enough to come up with a creative title? Probably not, especially considering that you probably already spent hours preparing for this paper: reading, taking notes, coming up with ideas, writing, revising. An English essay is a huge investment of time and energy, so the last thing you want is a bad title undermining all of your hard work.

I refer to this next group of as “We’ll call you for future openings” titles. They’re definitely an improvement on the previous examples, but they’re still not quite as great as they could be:

  • Nature in Song of Myself
  • Gender Differences
  • Out of Eden

These title examples beat out the previous group because they make it clear to your reader that you put some thought into your title. But this group could use some improvement, especially since they seem pretty vague. Luckily, vague titles can be significantly improved with just a few minor tweaks. For instance, it can really help to include the title of the literary work you’re analyzing in the title of your English essay. Also, you’ll want to be as specific as possible not only about what you’re focusing on (for instance, “nature”), but also how you’re using that approach (“Navigating Nature in Song of Myself“).

Now we’re ready for some Title Magic. Remember, our formula is

Something creative: something descriptive.

The “something descriptive” is easier to come up with: just include the title of the literary work you’re using and give a very clear and concise view of the focus of your essay. The example we just used, “Navigating Nature in Song of Myself,” would be a great description of an essay that deals with traveling, movement, or any other kind of real or metaphorical “navigation” that goes on in Whitman’s poem.

The creative part may seem like more of a challenge, but there are a few hacks I’ve taught my students that I’ll pass on to you now.

  1. Use a quote from the text you’re writing on, one that a) has to do with the topic you’re writing on; b) you close read in the paper; and c) that a reader can clearly connect to your “something descriptive.”
  2. Make a pun, reference an idiom/saying (like I did with “Best Foot Forward”), or just generally be a little cheeky. Not inappropriate or distractingly silly, but something witty that will be anchored in your serious “something descriptive.”
  3. Come up with a catchy phrase–something that will seize your reader’s attention and imagination.

With those guidelines in mind, let’s look at our final group of essay titles, a group I like to call, “Congratulations! How soon can you start?” These English essays use Title Magic, and as a result, they seem a lot more focused, cleaned-up, and professional than their counterparts. Like the Manolo Blahniks of essay titles.

  • “The origin of all poems”: Embodied Amusement in Whitman’s Song of Myself
  • What Lies Beneath: Repression in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  • Vindication of Eve: Unveiling the Goddess in Howards End
  • “Impossible to feign”: Playing with Emily Dickinson

For those of you who are still not convinced about the value (and utter simplicity) of Title Magic, take a look at this image below. It’s the table of contents of a 2013 issue of PMLA, the Modern Language Association’s periodical journal. These are articles for one of the most prestigious literary journals in academia, written by your university professors. How many of these professional academic authors seem like they’ve used a little Title Magic themselves?Screen Shot


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