How to Use Mathematical Thinking to Write a Great Title for Your Essay

how to write a great title

Are you math-brained? Did you know there are effective ways to use your natural systematic thinking to make writing easier?

Writing may seem miraculous, but really, just like genius as defined by Thomas Edison, writing is "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

A great example of this is a title. This teeny tiny element causes a lot of frustration for a lot of writers because they assume an inspiring title must be born out of great inspiration.

The truth is, most titles are made piece by piece, not in one fell swoop of "Oh my gosh, I just had the best idea ever!" Why? Because in writing, less is more. More work, that is.

When you only get to use a few words, each one must be carefully chosen! [Tweet that]

Don't Write, Brainstorm

A title should be short and sweet. It should let readers know what your essay is about while also catching their interest. When you’re creating a title, your brain is putting a lot of pressure on you. It’s saying, “Be brilliant. But be brief. Be informative. But don’t be boring.”

The way to fight the pressure of being brilliant is to focus on a system, just as you would to find factors in math. You'll eventually find what you need as long as you are thorough and follow the right steps.

Instead of writing one amazing title, the secret is to brainstorm a bunch of titles, some great, some OK, and some rubbish, by following a system. This frees up your brain to give you more ideas because there's no pressure to be brilliant. Any idea that fits the template will do!

When you have a sea of possibilities, you'll be able to cut away everything that doesn't work and you'll end up with one brilliant title you love. The best part is, anyone can do this!  

Use Writing Frames as Your Formulae

There are many different ways to structure a successful title. In fact, I recommend you start collecting them. All you have to do is look at titles you really like — your own and other people’s — and decode their frames.

But let’s start off with six common frames you can use for most writing occasions:

  1. A/The [Adj.] [Noun]    
  2. [Adj.] [Nouns]
  3. [ing Verb] [Nouns]
  4. [ing Verb] [preposition] [Noun(s)]         
  5. [ing Verb] a/the [Adj.]  [Noun]     
  6. (A/The) [Noun] [preposition] [Noun]      

If I wrote an essay about why dogs are helpful animals, here are some ways I might fill out those frames.

  1. A Helpful Pet, The Diligent Dog
  2. Reliable Companions, Helpful Hounds
  3. Discovering Dogs
  4. Living with Dogs, Relying on Canines
  5. Discovering the Noble Dog, Solving Problems with Dogs*
  6. The Life of a Dog Owner, The Usefulness of Dogs

*Did you notice this one doesn’t exactly follow the template? But that title popped into my head when I was looking at that template, so I wrote it down. The templates are only tools! They are there to inspire titles, but there is nothing special about them, and you should feel free to bend or even break them.

You should also notice that some of my titles are very similar. My goal isn’t to come up with six (or more) completely different ways to title my writing. After all, my essay has one central idea that is already set.

Instead, my goal is to use the frames to help me brainstorm so that I see how many slightly different wordings I can come up with for my one big idea. The frames get my brain to focus on structure rather than idea. This will help words naturally rise to the surface, cued by syntax, without my over-thinking things.

Don't Write, Revise

Now you’ve got rough titles to play with, which is great news! It means now you can revise, and revising is so much easier than writing!

First, just read through all of your titles. You might get a spark of inspiration that doesn’t fit any of the frames. Write it down! The one that popped into my brain when I read these back was Dogs in Society.

Next, create permutations! I like to be systematic, the way I would if I had to solve one of those word problems about how many different outfits can be made with a certain number of shirts, pants, and sweaters.

I would start at the beginning of my list and come up with as many synonyms for helpful as I could. In fact, what I’d do is open Thesauraus.com for inspiration and write down all my variations:

  • A Cooperative Pet
  • A Valuable Pet
  • A Practical Pet
  • An Invaluable Pet

I’m choosing the words that capture my original intent, and, of course, I would also add in any adjectives that came to mind as I did this, even if they weren't on the web page.

Some of the above frames have more than one element that I can make variations on. Let’s take Reliable Companions

First, I would create variations on reliable, again using Thesaurus.com as my starting point:

  • Steady Companions
  • Predictable Companions
  • Steadfast Companions
  • Conscientious Companions

Then, I would see about switching out companions:

  • Reliable Buddies
  • Reliable Counterparts
  • Reliable Sidekicks
  • Reliable Partners

Here’s where it gets interesting! Now I would be able to create combinations from my two lists! Again, I like to be systematic so I can keep track of what I’ve already done.

  • Steady Buddies
  • Steady Counterparts
  • Steady Sidekicks
  • Steady Partners
  • Predictable Buddies
  • Predictable Counterparts
  • Predictable Sidekicks
  • Predictable Partners
  • Steadfast Buddies
  • Steadfast Counterparts
  • Steadfast Sidekicks
  • Steadfast Partners
  • Conscientious Buddies
  • Conscientious Counterparts
  • Conscientious Sidekicks
  • Conscientious Partners

I now have 24 different possible titles to choose from, 25 if I include the original, Reliable Companions. And that’s only from a single frame!

Don't Stress and Don't Rush

Most of the time when you have your best title, you’ll just know it. The sound and tone of it will just feel right. And if your title doesn’t work for you, it may be hard to put into words why you don't like it. Again, you'll just have a feeling.

Since a strong title is a “know it when I see it (or hear it)” type of creature, the best way to find a great one is to view as many options as possible. Wait for your brain to jump up and down and shout, "That's it!" 

More options is better, but if you’re short on time, going through variations on even just a single frame will still give you a lot to work with.

Mark Twain is credited as saying, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Something short and pithy takes a lot of thoughtfulness and “cutting away” extra linguistic baggage.

That’s why titles are so hard for most people. But now you know the secret to creating a memorable title. You don’t have to wait for the perfect idea to hit you out of the blue. Instead, you can start with proven frames, use your tools (the thesaurus), and work consistently until you get something that works for you.

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