Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What's in a Name? Two Techniques for Brainstorming Story Titles

As we neared our publication date for our realistic fiction stories, I began hearing the same question pop up with increasing frequency:

"What should I title my story?"

It's always tempting towards the end of a writing piece to hurry through to "the good part": publishing. This often means that titles are just an afterthought, something that is slapped at the top of a Google Doc right before clicking "Turn In."

However, I decided that it would be a good use of time to brainstorm some titles for our stories. As I shared with my students, though they're just a few words, titles are both very important...and very hard to come up with sometimes.

As we gathered on the carpet for our mini lesson time, I asked my students to turn to a new page in their journals and to title it "10 Titles in 2 Minutes." I did the same for my journal, using the document camera to display it on the projector.

Then, I issued the challenge to my students: I'd set a timer for two minutes, and their goal was to come up with ten titles. The time crunch meant that they'd have to work quickly, which was a good thing--sometimes, hidden gems come out when you don't have the time to overthink what you're writing. I encouraged them to write down whatever popped in their heads, whether they thought it was "good" or not.

I set the timer, and we wrote. I wrote under the document camera, calling out the time in thirty second intervals. When the timer went off, I showed students my process for vetting my titles. I put stars by the ones that I thought had "potential" and marked an X by ones that I wasn't too thrilled with. I told them that I never, ever scratched out any title ideas completely--you never know where inspiration might come from!

Students also gave me feedback on my titles, telling me which ones they liked. I loved hearing their thoughts and encouraged them to pair up with their writing partner to get feedback as well.

The second strategy I showed students (which I first read about in Kate Messner's Real Revision) involved a little more movement and physical manipulation of words. Earlier that morning, I had taken my story manuscript, which I had printed out, and gone through and highlighted words that I thought were important to the story. I explained to students that I chose words that I felt like captured the feeling of my story.

Then, I held up a strip of scrap paper with all of the words that I had highlighted listed out on it. I explained to my students that real writers sometimes like to move around their words in order to get ideas for story titles. As I explained this, I grabbed my scissors and snipped apart my strip of paper, leaving one word on each smaller piece.

I put my words under the document camera so that students could see what this next step looked like in action. I shuffled them around, noticing what words landed next to each other.

I voiced out what titles were popping in my mind just by moving the words around. I added "Changing to Calm" and "Writing to Calm" to my potential title list that I had started earlier. This title brainstorming technique works well for writers who are more tactile and visual.

As we headed off into workshop time, I asked my writers to make a plan: would they continue brainstorming titles by aiming to write as many ideas as quickly as possible, just as we did at the beginning of class? Or would they come grab a scrap of paper, search their stories for meaningful words and play around with different combinations? With a plan in place, writers headed off to brainstorm titles and continue polishing their stories for publication.

At the end of class, I asked writers to post their working title on Google Classroom. I was thrilled to see titles that showed evidence of careful consideration as opposed to a cursory afterthought.

Titles are important and a significant part of the writing process. It's tempting to skim over this step in the process or to tell students to "just call it something," but I'm glad we invested time in titling our stories.  Giving my writers different tools that real authors use for the difficult task of putting a name to their hard work is just another way to help them feel like the authors that they all are.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Be the Weird Author: Read Your Writing Out Loud!

This fall, I was fortunate to hear quite a few of my favorite YA authors talk about their writing practice. One of my favorite anecdotes came from Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha series, who talked about her habit of dramatically reading her manuscripts out loud in her backyard. One day, while doing this, she overheard the man next door call out to his wife, "Honey, she's doing it again!"

I shared this story with my students last week as we gathered on the carpet for our mini lesson as a way to segue into the strategy I wanted them to try with their newly-completed "crappy first drafts" of their realistic fiction pieces: hearing their words out loud.

I told them that, yes, reading your story out loud can seem...well...a little weird to some, as Leigh Bardugo found out. But writers know this act has so much value. Reading your own words out loud lets you hear those awkward phrases and missing words that you might not catch otherwise. When I asked my students if any of them had tried reading their writing out loud in the past, many of them raised their hands.

I held up a printed copy of my realistic fiction story. "I'm going to try a slightly different approach today," I said, handing my "manuscript" to Sisi, a student who I had asked earlier to read part of my story out loud. I set my timer for five minutes, grabbed some Post-It notes and a pen, and got into position. "I'm going to listen to Sisi read my story, and as changes occur to me, I'm going to jot them down. Watch."

Sisi read. When she stumbled over sentences, I jotted it down. When the name of the high school I had invented sounded awkward, I made a note. When I heard my introduction, I realized how heavy with description it was. I made a list of where I could do some chopping.

My list grew more and more after each class period!

When the timer went off, I held up my filled Post-It note and shared some of my discoveries with my students.

"Writers make a plan for revision as they listen to their words out loud. And they write it down!" I told my writers that my preferred tool was a Post-It note, but the same concept could be achieved by sharing their Google Doc with their writing partner and adding comments as their partner read their piece out loud.

As we got ready to transition into our workshop time, I invited my writers to make a plan: would they read their own stories to themselves, like Leigh Bardugo, stopping and making notes as they heard places to change? Or would they work with their partner, listening as their words are read out loud and writing down a plan for revisions?

"Today, we're all going to be that weird author reading our words out loud," I said as I sent them off to workshop. For the rest of the day, my classroom was filled with the sounds of my writer's words being read aloud.

Music to my ears.