What Do I Call This? How to Title a Personal Essay

September 2, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

Essay titles challenge me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve worked for years as a journalist and magazine writer, where titles are formulaic and the editors’ domain. News article titles distill the story to five to ten words of succinct, accurate summary: Titanic Sinks Four Hours After Hitting Iceberg.

Magazine titles get catchier: Ten Ways to Survive a Shipwreck (And Catch His Eye on the Lifeboat!) or Six Cruise Ship Destinations Best Viewed from the Boat.

In both settings, the reader knows exactly what to expect from the story from the start.

What about the title of this blog post? It starts with a playful question: What do I call this? to draw the reader in, but like news and magazine articles, the subheading clearly tells the reader what’s to follow.

In contrast, the title of a personal essay is unique—subtle and finessed, it makes us wonder. Done well, the title challenges both the writer and the reader. The title hints more than summarizes, adds instead of mirrors, draws from instead of encapsulates. How? By employing the same literary craft techniques found in a good personal essay.

Let’s look at the titles of some of Brevity’s best essays to see how it’s done.

Choose the Right Word

Lori Jakiela’s “Holy” tells the story of a morning she spent making nut roll with her dying mother. Her mother wants to talk about religion, a topic that divides the two. Jakiela finds her title in the details. “The mug I’m holding was his, Batman, the image faded by my father’s hands. My mother’s mug, full of lemon tea, is Robin, faded to a mask and cape and the word “Holy.”

Create a New Way In

Diane Seuss’ title, “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” leads directly into the first line of the essay: “Crackheads, I exiled them is what I did, from my son’s basement apartment, they’d come to feast off what was left of him…” Her 494-word, single sentence essay about kicking the dealers and her drug-addled son out of her house starts in the 12-word title—three phrases separated by commas and only the I’s capitalized—and shows how this story will unfold.

Find An Image

Marilyn Abildskov’s “Wishbone” describes fragmented memories of her early childhood in rural New York. For the title, she latches onto an image: “My brother and sisters laced up their skates, and I slid stiff-legged on small winter boots while they pulled me across the ice, my arms up like a wishbone.” In this sliver of time, she captures the essay’s themes: family, home, and hope.

Use a Metaphor

Roxane Gay’s “There Are Distances Between Us” covers a lot of ground. Her father’s love of highways, his atlas, and family road trips. The fissure that erupts inside Gay and between her family after an “incident” with some boys. Her passionate long-distance love affair. Metaphors abound and she finds a single title that touches on them all.

Keep it Simple

Simple titles work wonders. Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost” is exactly that, a list of lost items.

Go for the Shock Value

J.D. Schraffenberger’s title “Dropping Babies” sounds ironic, almost unbelievable, but the examples in his braided essay support his choice. A 500-year-old ritual in western India where babies are dropped from a 50-foot tower and caught on a taut sheet, a blessing of good health and luck; the day a baffled crowd watched Michael Jackson dangle his infant son over the edge of a balcony in Berlin; and the night the author, exhausted by the nonstop demands and crying of his own baby, dropped her onto the sheets of her crib.

Punctuate for Effect

Danielle Geller’s “Blood; Quantum” sounds mysterious. Geller’s essay explores her birthright. She is half Navajo through her absent mother, a fact that her white grandmother tries hard to hide. A fact that other Native Americans she encounters, strangers, identify immediately. Punctuation like the semi-colon connects words in interesting ways, creating a sense of separation and a connection at the same time. If you break this title down, Blood; Quantum might translate as Heritage [Therefore] Significant.

Although you may have a working title in mind when you start, write the essay, then find the title. When you have a complete understanding of what the story is about, build on the craft to create a title that adds to and completes the personal essay.

Further tips for titling your personal essays:

  • The title is the first thing the reader sees—grab her attention.
  • Short is ideal, four words or less. There are always exceptions.
  • The title and essay need to connect…but not in the way the reader might expect.
  • Punctuation provides options. Consider what the emdash, colon, semicolon, and exclamation point can do.
  • Capitalize all words except pronouns, articles, prepositions and conjunctions. There are always exceptions.
  • Editors often like to put their fingerprint on titles. Be prepared to be flexible.

And, back to this blog post title: What Do I Call This?  

The End.

Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. She is teaching a (Zoom) class on Flash, Fiction and Creative Nonfiction in the Fall. Details and register here.

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