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.

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