Writing the *#)%(*$% title

I hate titles. Always have. I’m a fantastic writer, but I suck at titles. When I was a journalist, editors would constantly change my titles, never satisfied with the one I toiled over. Sometimes I hit on a good one, but that’s a rarity. Similar to my chances of striking gold were I to pan at one of those touristy roadside panning places out West. Usually, my search for a good title is kind of like searching for the elusive Sheepsquatch or Abominable Snowperson. You suspect it’s out there, you’ve heard stories and legends and myths about writers being really good at titles, and you’re pretty sure you can figure it out. And yet, it eludes you. Just out of reach. Out of range of your night-vision goggles. Always taunting from the shadows.

Most recently, I wrote a long creative nonfiction piece about a particular idea and experience (purposefully being vague because I’m hoping the publishing gods smile upon me for this one), and my writing group was not only clutch for catching those tinkering revisions that we all must suffer, but one friend actually came up with the perfect title. And when she made that suggestion, it was like the proverbial seas parting and angels weeping. I heard bells. But perhaps that was just a developing migraine. I just stared at her and finally said, “How did you come up with that?! And why can’t I come up with a title like that?!” I was extremely thankful, of course, but also mind-boggled that some people are just THAT good with titles and others just aren’t. We’re all fellow writers, but only some of us have the title touch. (And thank heavens she’s in MY writing group!) 🙂

If you feel my pain because you have similar difficulties with titles, thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone. Also, I have some great advice about how to write a good title that I share with my students every semester. And you know the thing about great advice. . .it’s always best when passed on. So here goes:

Titles should be descriptive, compelling, and preferably brief to grab a reader’s attention and set the stage for the story or essay or poem to follow.

Titles provide focus and should be creatively evocative (suggestive) of the story’s/poem’s/essay’s content. Be imaginative and try not to rely on trite, obvious, or clichéd phrases.

Writing a good title is a bit of an art, so you may change it several times until you hit on one that sounds right!

Strive to:

  • be creative if the occasion allows for it. Play with words, find interesting quotes from the text, surprise your reader through tone, juxtaposition, analogy, etc.  In other words, get the reader’s attention and make him/her want to read your work!  Example: “The Art of the Nap,” “The Loneliness of the Military Historian,” or “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Elvis.”
  • be informative. The title should always provide a clear idea of what the story/poem/essay is about, what its main ideas are, and what it’s working with.  Example: “Digital Networks and Citizenship,” “The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical.”
  • join attention-getting and informative parts of your title with a : if necessary. This is for my academic writers. All hail the colon. Example: “The Invisible Discourse of the Law: Reflections on Legal Literacy and General Education.”
  • remember to change the title if the focus of your story/poem/essay changes.

And finally, write your title last.

 

Sample titles from  published essays (for inspiration!):

“She’s Nothing Like We Thought” (Molly McGlennon)

“The Spirit of Language” (Neil McKay)

“The Secret of Breathing” (Steve Elm)

“Being Brians” (Brian Doyle)

“Finders Keepers: The Story of Joey Coyle” (Mark Bowden)

“Going Native” (Francine Prose)

“Why I Ride” (Jana Richman)

“Of the Coming of John” (W.E.B. DuBois)

“How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (Zora Neale Hurston)

“Once More to the Lake” (E.B. White)

“No Name Woman” (Maxine Hong Kingston)

“Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” (Richard Rodriguez)

“Petrified” (John Lahr)

“Fathead’s Hard Times” (W.S. DiPiero)

“The Comfort Zone” (Jonathan Franzen)

“If Memory Doesn’t Serve” (Ian Frazier)

“Six Seconds” (Paula Speck)

“A Sudden Illness” (Laura Hillenbrand)

“My Yiddish” (Leonard Michael)

“Envy” (Kathryn Chetkovich)

 

Now go forth and be fruitful, title writers. And help your writing friends who suck at them. Consider it a valuable public service. Thank you.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Experiment with Montage (11/12/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


 

Writing Prompt: Experiment with Montage

This prompt involves experimenting with a new style. One of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to push yourself outside your comfort zone. We can often get stuck by comfort and familiarity. We have a particular approach or style and we keep using it over and over. When is the last time you tried a new writing style?

Montage writing is a series of fast, hyper-detailed, short words or phrases that give the reader a snapshot. Think of a quick series of photographs or movie scenes flashing quickly by. You don’t have time to stop and explain – you have to capture the essence of the place, the person, the idea in a concise series of words. In film, montage is a series of shots that tells a story without dialogue. Apply this idea to a place or a idea or even a person. Try to tell a story of that place or idea or person using only a short series of words or phrases.

Here are some quickly-rendered examples for you:

Place montage: Cream-colored walls. Photos sagging. Paper chaos. Office space.

Person montage: Smiling brown eyes. Huggable body. Unconditional lover.

Idea montage: “Boys will be boys.” Microaggressions. Headlines protest. Nothing changes.

 

Montage can be incorporated into a longer narrative, or even used as section breaks. Montage can be active or passive, lyrical or blunt. So push yourself outside your comfort zone and try something new. You will be pleasantly surprised at the results. And the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll become with this new style.

Write reviews to build a publishing record

To increase your writing experience and exposure and build a publishing record, try writing reviews. Think reviews of books, movies, places, restaurants, the latest gadgets related to your expertise or favorite hobby. Whether you operate in academic or consumer-oriented publishing spheres, there are publications in print and online that publish reviews. Most do not pay except in experience and exposure.

The easiest way to begin is to locate calls for submissions and respond to them. When I presented at the Popular and American Culture Conference two years ago, I walked around the public spaces and publisher areas of the convention hotel. Lo and behold, I discovered a flyer announcing a call for book reviews from the Journal of American Culture. As soon as I got home, I searched Amazon for soon-to-be-published scholarly books in my specialty. I selected two, then pitched book reviews on those two texts to the editor of the JAC. She said yes and we were off and running. I read the books, wrote the reviews, submitted them, went through a peer-review process wherein I had to make some revisions and additions to each review, and then waited until they were both accepted and I received confirmation of a publish date. I was able to include those reviews on my CV and in my tenure binders this year. You can do this, too.

On the consumer side, sometimes you have to take the reins and pitch an idea to an editor even when there is no active call for submissions. I have a story to share here as well. When I was in Auburn, AL working on my Ph.D., I wanted a break from dissertation writing. I craved public writing in a way that was more official than my personal, anonymous blog and in a way that harkened back to my ten years as a journalist. So I located the editor’s name of the weekly cultural newspaper and asked if I could start reviewing local restaurants for them. The editor was enthusiastic, said yes, and agreed to my first suggestion – a new sushi restaurant. Not only did I get to enjoy and write about some delicious and artistically-designed sushi, I also got paid $25 for my effort. You may scoff at $25, but for a small local newsweekly, that’s actually a good amount of money. In fact, after I’d written several reviews and knew that the editor was happy with my efforts, I asked for more money. They upped my rate to $40. You can do this, too.

Years ago when I was a freelance journalist, I spent a majority of my time pitching and writing feature stories for newspapers and consumer magazines. But at one point, I wanted to combine my love of travel and adventure with my craft and profession of writing. So I sought out local and regional publications that seemed open to travel-related reviews. Because I had a solid publishing track record, the editors I approached didn’t hesitate to agree to my pitch suggestions. One place was a farm B&B with horseback riding. I got to spend the weekend riding horses, playing with the barn cats, talking food and history and B&B business details with the owners and guests, and then I wrote about my experience in the review with recommendations for future visitors. That story gave the next editor confidence and I landed a review story about a hidden gem of a B&B in a castle in Maryland. You can do this, too.

Another strategy for finding outlets for reviews includes reading the magazines, journals, and web sites that you’d like to write for and then pitch them ideas. Also consider using your writing group and other social and family/friend/colleague networks. Ask around. See if anyone you know has a suggestion about where you might publish a review.

The benefits of writing reviews are clear: You get to read books, try new restaurants, visit new places, and watch movies that you’re interested in before writing a comprehensive, detailed, truthful, and entertaining review. In addition, reviews are fast to write, fast to publish, and you can use them on your CV or resume and in cover letters to show you have a publishing record – editors will have more confidence in you because you’re a proven commodity.

You must put yourself out there to gain experience. No one will come looking for you to offer opportunities. When you are a writer, you must make your own opportunities to build your publishing record and improve your success rate with future editors.

Building your writer’s resume

Starting out as a writer can be an intimidating process. You have no publishing credentials, so automatically feel like you can’t compete for publishing acceptances. You have no experience and worry that this marks you as an amateur. Why would anyone give YOU a chance?

Editors will give you a chance if your ideas are strong and well-presented, and your work is well-written, and you present yourself with confidence.

Remember, editors want to work with writers they feel they can trust. When you are starting out, you must take on the attitude of an experienced writer in order to become one.

Here are three areas to consider when building your writer’s resume, whether you intend to operate as a fulltime freelance writer, or just want to add published works to your resume to set yourself apart from your competition for jobs.

Bread and butter clients. This is for the freelancers. When you operate a freelance writing business (and it IS a business, make no mistake), you must seek out a short list of ‘bread and butter’ clients. These are the people you write for all the time. The people who will call you for the smallest writing job. The ones who use your writing services every month. These are the people who pay you well and on time, thus allowing you to pay YOUR bills well and on time. You need to cultivate a few of these so that you have steady customers as the foundation of your business. These clients might include a local or regional magazine editor, a nonprofit organization, a small company or department of a large corporation, the editor of a trade publication, or a celebrity who needs a ghost writer for various projects. The people who fall into the category of ‘bread and butter clients’ can be an extremely diverse group and will change over time, but concentrate on developing these relationship early on in your business and you will have a solid foundation upon which to grow.

Diversity of publications. Unless you are specializing and concentrating on one particular genre or subject specialty within one medium, you should strive to diversify your publications in order to gain a wider range of experience and to increase the types of publications you can write for in the future. If you can point to a restaurant trade publication that you wrote for two years ago, that editor of a food service trade pub that you just met might be more inclined to give you a chance. If you want to publish a novel and are seeking a publisher, that publisher will be more likely to consider your novel draft if you can show her several short fiction stories published in different literary journals. If you want to publish a memoir, you must understand that you are an unproven commodity in a growing, but highly competitive, field, and publishing houses are in business to make money, which means if you can show substantial and varied creative nonfiction publications (literary journals, web sites, consumer magazines), then you are more likely to be considered seriously. Academic writers can expand their publications by addressing those scholarly peer-reviewed journals first (because those count the most toward tenure and promotion), but can diversify by writing about issues in their specialties in more public venues. The more you publish and the more variety you can work into your publishing practice, the better you will become as a writer, and the better positioned you will be to accept new assignments.

Streams of writing opportunities. This is related to the first two in that you must be open to new and different streams of writing in order to improve your skills, grow your reputation as a writer, and gain attention from editors, fellow writers, and fans. Be open and seek out new opportunities. Read listservs, scour calls for papers and submissions, look at the submission guidelines for your favorite blogs, web sites, and publications. Create works for those places and always have something out. This is how successful writers operate.

 

Midweek Writing Prompt: Braving the New (11/5/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


 

Writing Prompt: Braving the New

This prompt involves trying something new. One of the best ways to improve your personal vat of stories is to try new things. When is the last time you tried something completely new? Totally unfamiliar? Maybe a little scary? For instance, if you have never tried sushi – go to a really good restaurant and try it. If you have never had a pedicure, get a recommendation for a fabulous salon and go get one. If you have never driven a stick shift, find a friend with a manual transmission and ask for a lesson. You get the idea. Go and brave the new. Once you have that experience, write about it. Engage all of the senses in your re-creation, be honest about your fear and relief, and really work at re-creating the experience while reflecting on the experience of braving the new.

A writer is only as good as her experiences and her observation of those experiences. So push yourself outside your comfort zone and try something new. You will be pleasantly surprised at the results. Promise. 🙂

Writing Coach Services (you know you’re curious)

If you hate staring at the blank page or screen, perhaps you need a series of writing prompts to get you going. Maybe you have a great idea for an article, a book, an application essay, a business article, a report, or a blog project, but just can’t seem to get started. Perhaps you have started writing your project, have a few scenes or sections, but could use help organizing and scheduling your project, advice on conducting interviews, and guidance on how to locate possible publication outlets. You are not alone. Many individuals want to write for publication, but feel paralyzed by the daunting process, especially when the only thing staring back is a blank page coupled with a lack of experience.

I help people get published and can help you get started on your project. It starts with a conversation, either on the phone or through email, to discuss your writing project needs and goals. If we agree to work together, you will receive generous, specific, and practical advice, writing tips and prompts, and guidance to help you start (or continue) your journey. Each coaching client has different needs and goals, and I will work with you to set up achievable benchmarks and will hold you accountable, if that is what you want.

A few things to consider before contacting me: A writing coach is a guide and a mentor, not an editor or ghostwriter. The Editing Services page provides more information about this option. As a writing coach, I’m like the best friend you wish you had – energetic, enthusiastic, encouraging, and willing to tell you like it is in order to help you achieve your best writing potential.

Ready to get started? Fill out the contact form below or email Amanda to begin the conversation: amandamorrisphd (at) gmail (dot) com

The false promise of perfection

One of the biggest obstacles for many writers to overcome is the expectation that their writing be perfect. Perfection is a fool’s game. a false promise in our own psyches upheld by an unrealistic and non-writing public. It is the unicorn. The unreachable fantasy. And yet, so many writers strive for perfection before submitting any writing anywhere.

Not only is this unrealistic, expecting perfection reduces your opportunities by reducing the amount of writing sent out into the world. Revising is necessary, but you must train yourself to understand when a piece is finished enough to submit. Admittedly, this takes practice. The more you write, the more you revise, the more you submit, the more you get rejected, the more you get accepted, the more you will understand where that fine line is…the fine line between revised just enough and revised to death.

Expecting perfection in your writing also vacuums out your confidence and reduces you to a weak, sniveling pile of wriggling doubt-ooze. The more you seek perfection, the more doubtful you become that your work is good enough. Everything you read is better than yours. You compare yourself constantly to other published writers, thinking of course they get accepted, they’re perfect!

No, no, no.

Those other published writers and those published works are most certainly NOT perfect. Haven’t you ever read a published novel or memoir or short story or creative nonfiction essay or academic article and thought, “That doesn’t make sense” or “How did THIS get accepted?!” or “I wish she would have ended it this way instead.”

We’ve all had those judgmental thoughts. First of all, you may not be the target audience for that work. Secondly, you are simply recognizing the beautiful imperfection in that work. You read it, you enjoyed it, you saw room for improvement.

Now apply that recognition to your own work, don’t be so hard on yourself, trust your instincts, and practice, practice, practice until you grow the confidence to say, “This piece is ready to go make its way in the world.”

Drop the search for perfection. Your writing is imperfect and wondrous, just like you. And that’s a good thing.

Have a purpose

Why are you writing THAT story?

Why did you choose THAT style?

Why should readers care about THIS subject?

These are questions that all writers must answer if we want editors to publish us and others to read our words. Our stories and writings must have purpose.

Purpose means understanding why you are writing that story or essay or poem or article in the way you are writing it.

One of my favorite writing prompts for students and workshop participants is Letter to an Inanimate Object. Why? Because it forces writers comfortable with conventional boundaries to push beyond them, use their imaginations, and write something both fanciful and true. This prompt challenges as it teaches. Good prompt. That’s why I use it in every workshop and in every advanced writing class. See? Purpose.

With my creative nonfiction writing, I currently have a piece under consideration called “Fishing for Truth.” I chose the style because I wanted to experiment with putting two seemingly unlike things in conversation with each other via an extended metaphor. I also wanted to challenge myself to tell this story in a less conventional way. Further, the discoveries I unveil through this piece might be educational or at least interesting to a wide range of readers including fellow teachers, students of all ages, writers, and anglers. Purpose.

We have to know why we are writing the piece we are writing. Purpose guides every decision from which scenes and anecdotes to include to the descriptions and dialogue (if any). Purpose guides structure and organization, title creation, and even where to send the piece once it is finished.

Without purpose, your readers will start reading and wonder, “Why is she writing this? Why did she start with that scene? Why did she include that vignette? Why is this the subject?” And if you haven’t answered those questions with a clear underlying purpose, your readers will check out, tune out, switch web pages, put the magazine or book down, move on.

Purpose is necessary to guide our writerly choices and it is an essential component to keeping any reader’s attention.

So, what’s your purpose? 🙂

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