How To Write Titles in Essays (With Tips)

Updated June 24, 2022

Writing titles in an essay requires attention to detail and an understanding of writing formats. Whether composing the essay's title and subtitles or citing other works, your titling should remain consistent. Essays inspire and inform the reader, and effective titles reflect the mood and purpose. In this article, we discuss how to format titles within essays, along with tips you can use to craft compelling essay titles.

Related: 10 Essay Writing Tips

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Why are essay titles important?

Essay titles can compel your readers to continue reading your work. You want to craft a title that represents the purpose of your essay and engages the reader immediately. This title can be broad because it describes the overall theme. You can then incorporate subtitles throughout the essay to define different sections and add additional context for the readers.

You may also use titles within the essay to give recognition or credit to books, articles and other materials. Citing works by other authors helps you avoid plagiarism issues, especially when quoting the material. When properly formatted, the title lets the reader know if the work is long, short or an excerpt. Follow standard writing formats as indicated by your essay's guidelines. Typical writing formats include:

  • American Psychological Association (APA) style

  • Associated Press (AP) style

  • Modern Language Association (MLA) style

  • Chicago Manual of Style

Related: How To Start an Essay and Engage a Reader

How to write titles in essays

As mentioned, you may encounter situations that require citing other works or titles within your essay. The formatting of these titles typically uses particular standards for capitalization and emphasis, such as italics. You can use the following list as guidance for writing titles within essays:

1. Know your format

When writing an essay, make sure you understand the style guidelines you need to follow. As mentioned, you may need to follow APA, MLA or Chicago styles. Understanding which format you must adhere to is important because different style guides may present different rules when formatting titles and citations.

2. Follow the rules for italicization

Some titles require italicization when citing them within your essay. According to APA, MLA or Chicago styles, you italicize titles of standalone or longer works. A book represents a common example of work that requires italics. For example, you would write, "The collective works of Stephen King continue to affect me, particularly The Stand." You also italicize titles when citing the following works within an essay:

  • Movies

  • Plays

  • Journals

  • Magazine

  • Newspapers

  • TV shows

  • Websites

  • Databases

  • Blogs

  • Music albums

  • Paintings, sculptures and works of art.

3. Know when to use quotes

You use different formatting when citing shorter works or something that is part of a larger work. According to APA, MLA or Chicago styles, these types of sources use quotation marks for citations. A poem represents an example of these types of works. For example, you may write:

I wrote this essay with thanks to Robert Frost. His poem “The Road Not Taken” changed my life.

Other examples of works that require quotation marks include:

  • Articles

  • Essays

  • Book chapters

  • Webpages

  • Songs on an album

  • Speeches

  • Short stories

  • Individual TV episodes

  • Unpublished writing (regardless of its length)

There are some additional rules for using quotations. If your essay references a collection of work, italicize the main work and put any mentioned individual piece in quotes. For example, if you discuss a book of poems, references to the book use italics, while the poems require quotation marks. You may also encounter titles that include other titles. In situations where both titles use quotation marks, you may incorporate double- and single-quotation marks to differentiate them. For example, a journal article that contains a poem's title may look like this: "Examining Popular Theories About Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven.'"

4. Use proper capitalization

Capitalizing titles properly helps maintain consistency throughout your essay. These rules apply to the essay's title and subtitles, along with any cited works. While the different style guides may vary on some capitalization rules, the following standards typically apply no matter what style guide you follow:

  • Capitalize the first and final word of the title.

  • Capitalize nouns, pronouns, verbs, helping verbs, adjectives and adverbs within the title.

  • Capitalize the first word that follows a colon when using title case.

  • Do not capitalize articles located between the first and final words, such as "the," "a" and "an."

  • Do not capitalize short coordinating conjunctions, such as "and," "but" and "for."

As mentioned, the various style guides have specific rules that you can research. For example, these style guides differ on how they capitalize words based on length:

  • AP style capitalizes words with four or more letters.

  • APA style capitalizes words with five or more letters.

  • MLA style capitalizes primary words and words with four or more letters.

  • Chicago style does not capitalize words based on length.

Related: How To Cite an Article: Steps, Tips and Examples

5. Pay attention to punctuation

There are several general punctuation rules to follow when including titles within your essay that apply to all style guides. First, you need the write the source title using its exact punctuation rather than adding or removing punctuation marks. If the title has a question mark or exclamation point, you need to include it when citing the work. For example, you may write, "This essay focuses on the relationships between the characters in the film What About Bob?"

However, if you need to end a sentence with a question mark and the title does not include one, the question mark does not follow the title's formatting. Instead, you would place the title itself in quotation marks or italics, but not the question mark. Meanwhile, commas and periods always go inside quotation marks. For example:

  • What is the meaning behind Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise"?

  • I will discuss the meaning behind Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise."

6. Review your work for consistency

Follow consistent formatting practices when writing titles within your essay. Maintaining consistency demonstrates your attention to detail, which can help make your work look more professional. Before submitting your essay, review all references or citations to check they use proper and consistent formatting. When you feel hesitant, you can research your relevant style guide to ensure you adhere to its rules.

Related: 31 Common Grammar Mistakes (With Examples and Corrections)

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Tips for crafting essay titles

Now that you understand how to write and cite titles within your essay, you can take some time to develop the essay's main title or subtitles. You can use the following tips to help you craft compelling essay titles:

  • Write the essay first: Wait until you have finished writing to begin drafting its title. At this point, you will have a better idea of the primary messages included in your essay that you can use to guide the title.

  • Consider the tone: The title often reflects the essay's tone and alerts readers whether it is serious, funny or provocative. When writing titles and subtitles, make sure they accurately inspire the feelings or moods you hope to convey.

  • Use active voice: If your title includes verbs, format them using active rather than passive voice. Active voice focuses on a subject and the action it takes. For example, the title A Tree Grows in Brooklyn uses active voice, while In Brooklyn, Trees Were Growing is passive.

  • Keep it short: Aim for a concise title that garners readers' interest without revealing all of the essay's contents. There are no specific character or word limits, but try to avoid using full sentences.

  • Make it accurate: While you want to excite or entice your readers, make sure your titles accurately convey your essay's message. Use your title to set their expectations about what they will learn from your essay.

  • Choose a legible font: Your titles and subtitles should use a standard easy-to-read font. While the typeface should match the body text of your essay, you can make it slightly larger to add emphasis.

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