The Title in Composition

Examples and Observations

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—In composition, a title is a word or phrase given to a text (an essay, article, chapter, report, or other work) to identify the subject, attract the reader's attention, and forecast the tone and substance of the writing to follow.

A title may be followed by a colon and a subtitle, which usually amplifies or focuses the idea expressed in the title.

Examples and Observations

  • "It is important to know the title before you begin—then you know what you are writing about." (Nadine Gordimer, quoted by D. J. R. Bruckner in "A Writer Puts the Political Above the Personal." The New York Times, Jan. 1, 1991)
  • "The title comes afterwards, usually with considerable difficulty. . . . A working title often changes." (Heinrich Böll, interview in The Paris Review, 1983)

Catching the Reader's Interest

"At the minimum, titles—like labels—should accurately indicate the contents in the package. In addition, however, good titles capture the reader's interest with some catchy phrasing or imaginative language—something to make the reader want to 'buy' the package. Barbara Kingsolver uses the title, 'High Tide in Tucson' to catch our interest: What are tides doing in landlocked Tucson, Arizona? Samuel H. Scudder's title is a good label (the essay is about looking at fish) and uses catchy phrasing: 'Take This Fish and Look at It.'" (Stephen Reid, The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers, 2003)

Tips for Creating Catchy Titles

"Titles catch the attention of readers and provide a clue to the paper's content. If a title doesn't suggest itself in the writing of your paper, try one of these strategies:

Use one strong short phrase from your paper

Present a question that your paper answers

State the answer to the question or issue your paper will explore

Use a clear or catchy image from your paper

Use a famous quotation

Write a one-word title (or a two-word title, a three-word-title, and so on)

Begin your title with the word On

Begin your title with a gerund (-ing word)" (Toby Fulwiler and Alan R. Hayakawa, The Blair Handbook. Prentice Hall, 2003)

Metaphorical Titles

"Is there a factor that above all others contributes to making a title intriguing and memorable? I've studied the titles that have captured the public imagination during my lifetime. Add to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Blackboard Jungle the following titles that almost everyone seems to like, and ask yourself what they have in common:

Tender Is the Night

A Moveable Feast

The Catcher in the Rye

The Grapes of Wrath

All seven of these titles are metaphors. They put two things together that don't ordinarily go together. They are intriguing, resonant, and provide exercise for the reader's imagination." (Sol Stein, Stein on Writing. St. Martin's Griffin, 1995)

Selling an Article or Book

"An effective title is to your article or book what a good 'preview of coming attractions' is to a movie. It announces what your manuscript is about in such a way that it compels your reader to sit up and take notice. And if that reader is an editor who possibly will buy your material, an enticing title can open doors for you." (John McCollister, quoted by Jim Fisher in The Writer's Quotebook: 500 Authors on Creativity, Craft, and the Writing Life. Rutgers University Press, 2006)


"To the prospective reader, a subtitle is to a book what a carnival barker is to a midway: the step-right-up pitchman who peddles a mixture of awe, enlightenment and—no less important—bang for the buck. The marketing-savvy Galileo appended to his volume of heavenly observations, 'The Starry Messenger' (1610), a prose banner that stretches nearly 70 words. In it, the Florentine astronomer promised readers 'great and very wonderful sights'—the moon, sun and stars, literally—and even tossed in a paean to his Medici patron. Modern-day subtitles are generally shorter, yet they continue to tantalize us with invitations to learn the surprising secrets of America's wealthy, tag along in one woman's search for everything, or craft a life of well-being, wisdom and wonder." (Alan Hirshfeld, "The Limit of Reason." The Wall Street Journal, May 3-4, 2014)

Nick Hornby on the Lighter Side of Titles

"My advice to young writers: never begin a title with a preposition, because you will find that it is impossible to utter or to write any sentence pertaining to your creation without sounding as if you have an especially pitiable stutter. 'He wanted to talk to me about About a Boy.' 'What about About a Boy?' 'The thing about About a Boy . . .' 'Are you excited about About a Boy?' And so on. I wonder if Steinbeck and his publishers got sick of it? 'What do you think of Of Mice and Men?' 'I've just finished the first half of Of Mice and Men.' 'What's the publication date of Of Mice and Men?' . . . Still, it seemed like a good idea at the time." (Nick Hornby, Songbook. McSweeney's, 2002)

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Title in Composition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). The Title in Composition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Title in Composition." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).