Titles (Say So Much)

Purpose: The purpose of this exercise is to help students recognize the importance of titles, showing students that there needs to be a balance of creativity and information.

Description: This is a class discussion activity that begins with analyzing the title of an 18th century chapbook, and then asks students, as a class or in groups, to examine book titles. Finally, students exchange their own essays with titles in order to critique the effectiveness of each title.

Suggested Time: 40 min

Procedure: Start by reading aloud, or writing on the board (if you have an interactive classroom there are even better ways) the following title. I make a point of not completing it in writing but reading the last of it instead.

"A very surprising narrative of a young woman, discovered in a rocky-cave, after having been taken by the savage Indians of the wilderness in the year 1777, and seeing no human being for the space of nine years. In a letter from a gentleman to a friend."

[A chapbook from America, between 1788-1851. Chapbooks were the Reader’s Digest of the period; cheaply printed and pedaled by traveling booksellers.]

Possible “script” when reading the title: In this story, “A most beautiful young Lady sitting near the mouth of a cave” [oh, I bet, after 9 years she musta been somethin’ else] is discovered by two travelers in the wilderness. After recovering from a faint upon seeing them, “Heavens! Where am I?” she exclaims, and proceeds to tell them that she and her lover had been attacked by Indians, who murdered her lover and captured her. She chewed threw her bonds [this sound fishy to anyone else?], and in order to escape: “I did not long deliberate but took up the hatchet he had brought and, summoning resolution I, with three blows [she took note to count them, apparently], effectually put an end to his existence [axes will do that].” She managed also to lop off his head, quarter the corpse, and drag it half-a-mile to some foliage she figured could use the fertilizer, and hid it. She’d been growing Indian corn ever since. Of course, once returned home by her rescuers, she is reunited with her father, who’s so happy to see her again he dies and leaves her a handsome fortune. (From Popular Culture in American History, Jim Cullen ed.)

Ask questions like, “Boy, wonder what happens in that story!? Do you want to read it? What’s wrong with it? How does it lose your attention? I explain that print culture has changed in these decades, that books then couldn’t afford advertising or enticing covers to inspire readership, and that no print could be spared for a back cover description. So, the title became the description. People also had much longer attention spans and fewer competing stimuli!”

This leads into the present day, and how this story could be adapted – or what stories/movies they know of that seem to have borrowed this theme. How can we make it better? What would you title the story?

After we’ve exhausted this discussion, I move on to titles of the present, and how/why they work. On the board, write the following title and discuss it:


  • How does this title work?
  • Does IT make you curious? Why?
  • What things do we associate with the term “it” (It’s gonna get you! It’s out there!)
  • How does the size of the book make you ironically interested in terms of the title? (book huge, title small = something’s going on with “it”!)

Then, either as a class in groups ask them to examine what the titles make them think and what they imagine the cover of the books would look like.

Lord of the Flies

  • Oxymoron creates interest
  • What do we associate flies with? (dead things, feces, etc) How does this make the word “lord” more intriguing?

Kick Ass

  • Carl Hiaasen’s collected editorials from the Miami Herald
  • How does it grab attention? Why?
  • Dual function, it’s also a statement of Carl’s personal philosophy of metropolitan journalism. “Turn over rocks. Dig out the dirt. Kick ass.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes

  • Speaks for itself: what’s coming?
  • Turn of phrase is out of the ordinary, and is both pleasing and dissonant to the ear.

All the King’s Men

  • Nursery rhyme plays on our common knowledge and we recall the rest of the tale, makes us curious about how this one will turn out
  • Begins in mid-phrase, requiring us to fill it in, leaving us hanging 

Where the Red Fern Grows

  • Where? Curiosity’s raised by implication. Who cares about ferns? There has to be something else going on there, we think.
  • The color red paints sinister pictures in the mind. 

G.I. Jane

  • We recall the common phrase “G.I. Joe” and are interested by the switch.
  • We know enough about this story by inference to maintain some interest. 

"Let’s Get World Serious" 

  • Title of a Sport’s Illustrated article, by Rick Riley.
  • How does the switch of the word “series” to the near “serious” have an effect?
  • How does it target its appropriate audience – sports fans?

I complete the discussion by extending the invitation: Can you guys think of any good ones, and why are they good?

Then, ask students to exchange their essays and essays titles with each other and critique the titles based on how interesting they are and how well it relates to the essay’s topic.

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