To Each Maker, Their Model

many, many carsDespite my appre­ci­a­tion for cars as a trans­porta­tion mode, I was always hope­less at telling one make and mod­el from anoth­er. Then I took on an assign­ment to write about some high-pro­file vehi­cles, and I had to learn about their dis­tin­guish­ing characteristics.

Even with all that extra study, I still can’t author­i­ta­tive­ly iden­ti­fy those cars if I see them from the front. But a split-sec­ond glance at the shape of one from behind now tells me if it’s a Corvette or a Mus­tang. I guess I’m just bet­ter at nam­ing some­thing when I view it from the backside.

Writ­ten pieces are the same for me: I can rarely come up with the right name for them until I’ve seen them through to the end. I have all sorts of titling tac­tics that are use­ful after the piece is writ­ten. I share those with stu­dents who are hav­ing trou­ble com­ing up with a title: Is there some­thing atten­tion-grab­bing that also reflects the tone of the piece? Is there some­thing quirky about the con­tents, or some great one-lin­er with­in, that could com­mand atten­tion at the top of the page? Is it meant to be infor­ma­tive, so the title should make that clear? Does the writer need to hint that it’s a mys­tery or an adven­ture or a fan­ta­sy, so that the piece attracts the right readers?

But here’s the fun­ny thing: as often as I tell stu­dents that I pre­fer to wait until I can see the entire shape of a piece before I title it, there are always those who ask me — beg me, real­ly — for per­mis­sion to write their title first. I’ve come to rec­og­nize that for some of them, writ­ing out the title is an impor­tant first step. A blank piece of paper is scary to them. But allow them to slap a title up top — and presto, they’ve claimed that piece of paper. They’ve told it, “Watch out — I have some­thing to say. It’s just going to take me a lit­tle while to get it all down.”

In oth­er words, some writ­ers find it help­ful to title a piece when they’re star­ing into its head­lights, while oth­ers find it bet­ter to wait until after they’ve watched its tail­lights speed by. Both approach­es can have their mer­its; to each mak­er their model.

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