On Finding Essay Titles: The Answer Is in Your Essay — A HippoCamp Recap

by Jaminnia R. States, guest blogger

This post is part of a HippoCamp 2022 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.

“Who waits until their essay’s complete before they start to think about the title?” Kristen Paulson-Nguyen asked innocently at the start of her session, “The Answer is in Your Essay.”

Shameless about the flaws I truly want to work on, I raised my hand proudly. Titles are my Achilles heel, and it was time to turn my life around. I’d heard about the importance of titles twice during HippoCamp. During “Let the Fragments Be Enough,” Lara Lillibridge advised, “Titles are your first sentence to the reader.”

Okay, Universe, way to remind me of one of the many things I’d come to HippoCamp for!

Before Kristen’s session, what I hadn’t heard, or come to realize on my own, was how to think about essay titles, how to draft them, and where to find inspiration for them. Kristen made it plain. Our essays are already rich with so much language: powerful verbs, dynamic characters, charming dialogue, references to numbers, important settings, etc. These pieces are a treasure trove of material that writers can use to craft titles that attract readers.

Emphasis on craft. “We can’t just slap the title on at the end, the way a chef puts icing on a cake.” Kristen shared a system of combing the essay for several categories of language including: words and phrases conjured by the essay’s topics, the questions the essay asks, and unique specific moments in the essay. It’s like a big word association game, but with the essay. Then, you get to dump all that language out like a bucket of crayons and play around. Like a newspaper layout editor, we can cut and paste the pieces into different combinations, until we’ve crafted the perfect title.

Or several perfect titles. Essay titles can and should evolve through writing drafts. We can run them by beta readers or compare them to our target publication’s previously published works. Read them each aloud and see which one might fit. We can change that first sentence to our reader the way the Queen of England changes her hats (have you seen those colors?).

I left Kristen’s session invigorated and empowered: my essays are filled with words, and so they are filled with many potential titles. We are writers, after all, writing is our craft. We experiment with language, and we practice drafting, combining, and recombining our essay’s parts. And so, we know how to master titles.

>>See more HippoCamp 22 recap posts, content, and more here.

Meet the Contributor

Jaminnia R. States is an intuitive, curious woman, a writer, and a (former) children’s librarian. Her current projects include joyful picture books, balanced histories for school-aged kids, and manuals on spirituality as a path to liberation for all people. She lives in Georgia, where she reads a lot, writes some, and creates learning experiences for students of all ages. She mostly reads social media. Follow her on Twitter: @kionispeaks.

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