Six-Word Stories: Versatile Comprehension Tools


Although the six-word memoir began as a narrative platform for telling a personal story in only six words, it serves as a versatile analysis and comprehension tool for multiple content areas.

According to literary legend, the six-word story was born when someone challenged novelist Ernest Hemingway to write a story using only six words; Hemingway's six-word story read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Since that poignant beginning, Smith Magazine popularized the genre with its Six-Word Memoir Project when magazine publishers asked their readers for their own Six-Word Memoirs.  From the overwhelming response to that invitation, they published Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure in 2008.  Because the six-word memoir is “populist, participatory, inspirational, and addictive,” according to the magazine’s storytelling mission, it remains popular.

As literary response, the six-word story is a powerful tool to inspire conversation around a big idea.  It is also a way to capture and distill the essence of an author’s main characters or main ideas.

The six-word memoir works especially well as an exercise to reveal understanding of characterization. For example, readers might use the genre to share their insight into the main characters of their reading by selecting a character and writing that character’s biography in multiple chapters, with each chapter being a six-word story.  In this way, a reader can provide glimpses into the humanity of a character and that individual’s multi-faceted personality.

A reader might even pen six-word wisdom nuggets, according to a certain character, or capture a character’s aspirations, disappointments, frustrations, exasperations, deepest secrets, or idiosyncrasies—six words at a time.

The strategy can be used to capture one’s reading comprehension of any material, however, since at its core, the six-word story teaches writers not only to be concise and to focus but also to think deeply and broadly.  After analyzing a content area topic, for instance, students might take the individual pieces of information discovered and assemble them to make a coherent whole.

To focus on getting a point across in as few words as possible, students have to choose words precisely; since they can't waste any. Consequently, the six-word story format teaches all writers a critical skill: that words are valuable and have meaning.

See if you can identify the individual or his/her philosophy captured by each of the six-word stories below:

  1. Creative thought can change the world.
  2. His numbers apply to everything living.
  3. Cherokee mathematical genius pioneered early spaceflight.
  4. Heliocentric cosmos idea blasphemes the Church.
  5. Bronze agility captures physical-emotional extremes.
Answer Key: 1) Albert Einstein; 2) Leonardo Pisano aka Fibonacci; 3) Mary Golda Ross 4) Nicolaus Copernicus; 5) Auguste Rodin

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