Most English teachers have heard some variation of “Does this need to have a title?” Although it seems like a yes-or-no question, my stock answer is “A title provides an excellent opportunity to set up your readers with some expectations about your topic and tone. There is no downside to providing a title.” In other words, “Yes, you need a title because it helps your writing, not because it’s a grade-based requirement.”
But students sometimes struggle with titles. I imagine them so exhausted after concentrating on crafting juicy paragraphs and considering the many ways their pieces can be organized that they end up just tacking on a simple label rather than an interesting title. How many pieces have we seen with the words “Romeo and Juliet” at the top, or even “Romeo and Juliet Essay”?
I’ve found that students can actually enjoy the search for just the right title if provided with some guidance and models. Listed below are four simple techniques for generating titles, along with some examples of my own culled from elsewhere on this blog. (I made the titles here clickable just in case you’re compelled to take a look at the respective posts. It isn’t really necessary though.)
Three Key Words: This technique requires waiting until after the piece is written to generate the title. Then the writer simply chooses a few interesting words from what she has written and starts playing around with them in different orders, adding other words, and just seeing what clicks. (Much of this title-writing business relies on the “I’ll know it when I see it” impulse.)
Make It Look Like a Title: This is the title-colon-subtitle strategy used in a lot of academic titles, many of which are perhaps accurate but also boring. “Boring,” of course, is in the mind of the beholder, but the titles of many academic papers actually seem intentionally boring. Let’s not encourage students to do that.
As we help students craft this kind of title, suggest that they use a single word or a very short phrase (1-3 words) followed by a colon and an emphatic or bold phrase.
Make It Not Look Like a Title: This is one of my favorites. Include symbols, numbers, punctuation. I’m not sure of the psychological principles involved, but titles using non-word elements seem to stand out.
Un-send! Un-send! (two hyphens and two exclamation marks)
“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus” (quotation marks and two blackslashes)
The Truest “Grit”: 1969 or 2010? (quotation marks, colon, two dates, and a question mark)
#NCTE12 – Glimpsing the Future (hashtag and dash)
Dramatic or Funny Image: Sometimes we use an anecdote in a piece to serve as an example or unit of evidence. If the essence of that anecdote can be distilled into a few words, the result can serve as a title.
Bonus Strategy: Each of these techniques can be augmented by noting that some kind of catchy sound device is a bonus: alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Students can be reminded that this is a practical application of those literary terms they’ve been learning all these years!
Class activities: I’m not sure how much time you want to devote to the art of writing titles, but here are some activities you can try:
— Bring in an op-ed piece and use these strategies to come up with a title. Headlines accompanying a newspaper op-ed piece are usually created based more on available column space than actual craft. What would the title be if space were not an issue?
— Have students bring in an untitled piece of their own and use these techniques to create multiple title possibilities. Then survey classmates about which is most appealing.
— Share a piece of your own writing that is finished or close to finished. Then solicit title suggestions based on these strategies.
Thanks for reading, and please feel free to add your favorite titles or advice about crafting titles.