, Derry, New Hampshire


January 9, 2014

Column: A good title serves as a window into a book

I teach my sixth-grade students to breathe life into their sentences by using active verbs and concrete nouns. They learn the value of specificity. They come to realize that a satisfying conclusion is every bit as important as a strong lead.

But why then, after penning an engaging narrative about “hooking the big one,” would one of my students decide to title their piece “My Fishing Trip”?

My students learn that a good title is like a mini lead. It can pull the reader in immediately. Or, if the writer isn’t careful, can make the reader discard the piece and turn on the television instead.

I suspect my students too often bail on a title because good ones are hard to come by. Donald Murray, the former Boston Globe columnist and University of New Hampshire English professor wrote, “I would start writing an article by brainstorming 100 to 150 possible titles ... Each title was a window into the draft I might write.”

I’ve tried that method, but it doesn’t work for me. Like many writers, I find out what I want to write by writing. A predetermined title straitjackets me. I prefer to write the entire piece first, and then brace myself for a process that, at best, resembles a session with the dental hygienist.

As my editors over the years at this newspaper can attest, my efforts often fail. Their titles are almost always superior to mine. But now that I’m publishing a collection of my columns in book form, I need a title that will persuade readers to read a bunch of 500-word essays.

Andy Rooney’s book of collected essays is called “Out of My Mind.” Love that. So what if I call mine “A Piece of My Mind”? Nope, because when I Google it, it’s already been taken, more than a few times. How about “Come to Think of It…”? Yeah, that’s a good one. So good, in fact, that the great Daniel Schorr thought of it seven years ago.

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