Skills Hub

Devising your own essay title

The trick to devising your own title is making sure it’s not too broad, but is well focused and allows you to develop an argument.

You’ll need to have an understanding of the common elements of an essay title: directive keywords, topic words and limiting/focus words.

Activity 1 What’s wrong with these essay titles?

1. Evaluate the impact of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

2. Describe the effects of low-impact exercise on cardiovascular health in the over 70s

3. The negative effects of using social media


There are three types of keywords:

  1. Directive words [blue] – words that tell you to do something, eg analyse, discuss, evaluate
  2. Topic words [green] – the main topic areas or themes outlined by the title
  3. Limiting/focus words [red] – words that provide boundaries or constraints for your assignment

You need to have a good grasp of directive keywords (also known as academic keywords) to see which will suit your assignment best. 

To check your understanding of some important directive keywords, try the activity below.

Activity 2 - Keyword phrases

Consider each of the example keyword phrases below and then look at the list of related definitions. See if you can match the keyword phrase to the definition. Then click to reveal the answers.

Keyword phrases:

  • Critically evaluate
  • Justify
  • Discuss
  • Analyse
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • To what extent 


Definition 1 - Weigh arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of the evidence on both sides. Use criteria to guide your assessment of which opinions, theories, models or items are preferable.

Definition 2 - Identify the differences between two items or arguments. Show whether the differences are significant. Perhaps give reasons why one is preferable.

Definition 3 - Break up into parts; investigate

Definition 4 - Give evidence which supports an argument or idea; show why a decision or conclusions were made.

Definition 5 - Look for the similarities between two things. Show the relevance or consequences of these similarities concluding which is preferable.

Definition 6 - Consider how far something is true, or contributes to a final outcome. Consider also ways in which it is not true. 

Definition 7 - Investigate or examine by argument; sift and debate; give reasons for and against; examine the implications.

For a more comprehensive list of directive keywords, check this University of Leicester webpage: Essay terms explained

Identify the keywords

To familiarise yourself with the three types of keywords, identify the keywords in these essay titles. This isn’t an exact science so there could be more than one answer.

  • Directive words [blue]
  • Topic words [green]
  • Limiting/focus words [red] 

Activity 3 - Identify keywords in example statements

Statement 1 - With reference to an urban or rural landscape known to you, assess the extent to which it reflects past and present socio-cultural and economic relations

Statement 2 - Explore the meaning of ‘radical evil’ and the ‘banality of evil’ and how they might relate to understandings of evil using the cases of Idi Amin and Adolf Eichmann.

Statement 3 - Compare the roles of parents and either siblings or friends in facilitating children’s cognitive development.

Tips for a good title


  • When considering your essay title, first check your coursework marking criteria. You’ll need to come up with a question that enables you to meet the criteria. It is particularly important to think about the best directive keyword/s for your question.
  • Consider the right kind of directive keyword for the topic. If there are two main competing theories in the literature, a ‘compare and contrast’ essay might be suitable. If you want to explore an innovative approach, you might like to critically evaluate the evidence in support of and against it.
  • Keep the title concise, and avoid including several questions.
  • You may choose to use a short quotation in your title, but make sure that it links to the academic debate you want to focus on. The quote may provide the topic and limiting keywords, but you might need to follow it with a typical essay question to focus your essay. For example:

    ‘There is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave.’ (Bristol Annalist, early 18th century). Is this a fair assessment of the impact of the slave trade on Bristol?
  • Essay titles do not always use directive keywords – it’s up to you whether to use them. This title does not contain a directive keyword:

    ‘In what respects was the debate over slavery fundamental to later history of the British Empire?’


Even if your essay title does not contain a directive keyword, the direction should still be clear. In this case, you might be considering/discussing/exploring how the debate over slavery affected later history of the British Empire, drawing on current research. Remember that directive keywords can encourage you to be analytical rather than descriptive.

The process of devising your question 

Here is a strategy you can use to devise your question. Put the stages in the best order for your assignment.

Activity 4 - stages of devising your question

Consider the list of stages below. Which order of stages would best suit your task?

  • Write a draft title. 
  • Decide on the limiting keywords.
  • Do an essay plan for content.
  • Decide on the directive keywords.
  • Finalise your title.
  • Check your essay plan against your draft title.
  • Do an essay plan for length.
  • Identify the subject area to come up with the topic keywords.
  • Do your research. 


Additional tips

  • Planning your essay for length can be a real time saver. You can work out the word count for the sections of the essay and decide how much research you’ll have to do. More advice on planning.
  • Do some research before deciding on the topic of your assignment. Check that you can access suitable primary sources and academic publications on the subject and that you will be able to find any new information easily.
  • Always check your essay plan against your draft title before you start to write. You may need to tweak the title to fit the content. It’s worth checking your title again when you’ve drafted the essay in case you’ve drifted a little from your plan. 
By Cath Senker, with help from David Smalley, Rachel Cole and Clare Hardman, 2017-18


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