The Elements of Title: How to hook up your book with a best seller

For $9.99 plus shipping, I purchased a book by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen titled “The Elements of F*cking Style.” This “helpful parody,” as it is described on the cover, has some useful writing tips, supported by potty-mouthed examples that might pass for clever on Spike TV.

Our tendency to define deviance down — to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s alliterative term — has given mainstream publishers license to put dirty words on book covers, the most recent triumphs being “Sh*t My Dad Says,” “Go the F**k to Sleep,” and “The No A**hole Rule.”

My reaction is not outrage but jealousy. If there were a way to re-title one of my books “The Glamour of F***ing Grammar,” I just might do it, the New York Times Book Review be d*mned. (And can we get a big shout out, people, for the revival of the a*terisk? )

Publishers being courageous imitators of all things profitable, be prepared for more asterisk titles, including, perhaps, some tweaking of the classics: “Gone with the W*nd,” “The G*dfather,” “M*ther G**se,” “Moby D*ck.”

But back to my lost sawbuck. Baker and Hansen’s bawdlerization (reverse bowdlerization!) of Strunk and White’s famous title earns the authors a place in a long line of piggy-backers on the most profitable writing book in history.

Not long ago I purchased the fiftieth anniversary edition of “The Elements of Style,” the guide written by Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr. and revised thrice by his illustrious student E.B. White, and once by White’s son-in-law, Roger Angell. “Strunk & White,” the book’s nickname, has sold more than 10 million copies since 1959, making it the envy of all of us hacks — writing about writing — who dream of hitting the jackpot. Our favorite blurb is the one that exclaims that our work “deserves a place on your bookshelf right next to ‘Strunk & White.’ ”

What is on my bookshelf next to “Strunk & White”? Why five other editions of “Strunk & White,” of course. I own a 1934 edition of the little book first published in 1918 by Strunk for his university students. I own an inexpensive recent reprint of the first edition, a book that would cost you hundreds of dollars if you could find an original. I own a second printing of the hardcover edition of 1959, the version that White revised for The New Yorker and that got publisher Macmillan counting from one to ten million. I own a 1962 paperback edition, the one that made its way into thousands of college classrooms in dozens of academic disciplines.

That’s not all. I wasted about $25 on the illustrated edition published by the Penguin Press in 2005. Maira Kalman did the artwork, where pink seems the dominant color, a terrible disconnect with the plain, black-and-white, enduring wisdom in the book. It’s as if you took one of John Wayne’s ranches and painted the outhouse chartreuse.

The fiftieth anniversary edition errs in the opposite direction, offering a hard black cover with bold gold biblical letters, an indecorous presentation for such a modest book. Those gold letters suggest the intuitions of a publisher who owns a cash register, someone who knows how to count all the way to 20 million.

In 2006 I wrote a book called “Writing Tools,” a decent title, but not The Elements of Writing. If I had snagged that marquee, perhaps search engines looking for Strunk & White might have bumped into mine by mistake, the way that if you misspell the web address for the White House or The New York Times you get funneled to a porn site.

I thought of naming one of my books the “Elements of Grammar,” but it was already taken in 1986 by Margaret Shertzer. I also own “The Elements of Story,” by Francis Flaherty of the New York Times. I own “The Elements of Editing” and “The Elements of Expression” by the persistently elemental Arthur Plotnik, who triple-dipped with his frisky rejoinder to Strunk & White titled “Spunk & Bite.”

But wait, there’s more. I own “Adios, Strunk and White” By Gary & Glynis Hoffman;
“Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style” by Mark Garvey; and, my favorite title in this sub-genre, “The Elephants of Style,” by Bill Walsh of The Washington Post.

Will this mimetic madness never end? Just the other day, my friend Ben Yagoda linked me to his essay on bad student writing, “The Elements of Clunk.”

A simple search turned up almost 700,000 links for book titles beginning with the words “The Elements of….” I’ve gathered a sampler, using only titles parallel to Strunk and White’s: “The Elements of Drawing,” “The Elements of Reasoning,” “The Elements of Bankruptcy,” “The Elements of Bioethics,” “The Elements of Cooking,” “The Elements of Poker,” “The Elements of Argument,” “The Elements of Ecology,” “The Elements of Color,” “The Elements of Counseling,” “The Elements of Mentoring,” “The Elements of Literature,” “The Elements of Ethics,” “The Elements of Language,” “The Elements of Design,” “The Elements of Music,” and my personal favorite: “The Elements of Murder” (a history of poison).

The word “Style” appears in these titles: “The Elements of Style for Screenwriters,” “The Elements of Java Style,” “The Elements of UML Style,” “The Elements of Resume Style,” “The Elements of Style: Knit and Crochet Jewelry with Wire, Fiber, Felt & Beads.” These authors and publishers are not guilty of an unoriginal sin. I applaud them with all sincerity. I wish I too could grab on to the coattails of greatness.

Not long ago, I picked up a novel by Wendy Wasserstein and read the first sentence:  “Frankie Weissman pushed open the door to her new offices with two double-sized Penny Whistle Toys shopping bags.” Imagine my surprise when I noticed the novel’s title:  “Elements of Style.”

I sent a message to Tom Rosenstiel, who with Bill Kovach wrote the influential book “The Elements of Journalism,” asking him about the conversation leading to the title. He wrote back with an homage to Strunk & White” and its influence on his career.

His first newspaper editor had him memorize the rules in “The Elements of Style,” he said, and quizzed the young reporter on them.

“It has had a profound effect on my writing and my editing over the years,” a knowledge that he has passed along to other young writers working for him at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The choice of title for him was a tribute to the original, not a chintzy hook-up.

The following books do not currently exist, but if any of you out there would like to write one of them, feel free to use the title, free of charge:

  • The Style of Elements: Getting Down with Atomic Numbers
  • The Elements of Smile: A Parent’s Guide to Orthodontia
  • The Elements of Turnstile: A Guide to Subway Etiquette
  • The Elements of Shtyle: A Starter Kit for Borscht Belt Comedians
  • The Elements of Guile: An Unauthorized Biography of Bernie Madoff

I must add another to meet the demands of the current climate: “The Elements of *******.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=657856214 Matthew Jordan Ennis

    Roy Peter Clark, I just want you to personally know that your book “Writing tools” is my favorite book. I am learning far more from this book than just writing. I also love the workshop ideas!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks, Reed, I missed that one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Elementary, my dear Plotnik!

  • http://twitter.com/rreibstein Reed Reibstein

    One to add, Roy: “The Elements of Typographic Style” by Rogert Bringhurst. It’s well known among designers, such that it’s often abbreviated to “Bringhurst.” One of my favorites.

  • Arthur Plotnik

    Brilliantly observed; and yes, I confess to being
    the “elemental” Arthur Plotnik, with, lo, three such titles
    (counting “The Elements of Authorship”), Blame the publishers for
    this redundancy and, well, everything else. My cherished copy of “The
    Glamour of Grammar” bids me to dub you the glamorous R. P. Clark, but that
    quality of “compelling charm, romance, and excitement” is not a
    hat worn by any inkslinger or writing mentor I know.

    Speaking of headgear, Chicago’s glamorous
    Steppenwolf theater will be performing “The Motherf**ker with the
    Hat” starting in late December.