Image Description

Clarity and Cleverness

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

Let me take a moment to recap where we've been and where we're going. We've discussed the overall process of coming up with a book title, considered methods of brainstorming, and looked at title patterns for nonfiction, fiction, and book series. Now we'll get into what comes after brainstorming: the nitty-gritty of eliminating bad titles, recognizing promising ones, and tweaking so-so ones into better titles.

The number one requirement for your book title is, does it clearly indicate what the book is about? This is absolutely crucial for nonfiction. If you can come up with a title that's both clear and clever, all the better, but if you must choose between clarity and cleverness, clarity always is more important for success.

Author Kristen Eckstein, for example, says that when she released a book on saving money and budgeting under the title Living on Angel Hair Pasta: How You Can Live on a Thinner-Than-a-Shoestring Budget, she received complaints that there were no angel hair pasta recipes in the book. Her audience didn't understand that it was merely a metaphor, and people who were looking for a book on budgeting and saving money didn't see at a glance that a book referring to angel hair pasta in the title was for them. When she re-released the book under the clearer, decidedly unclever title Financial Survival: Practical Ways to Save Money, sales improved.

Watch out for unfamiliar or difficult words in a title, which can definitely kill interest from those who aren't sure what they mean or how to pronounce them. F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to title the novel you probably most know him by Trimalchio in West Egg. How many people know that Trimalchio was a figure in Petronius's Satyricon who throws lavish dinner parties to show off his wealth? Yes, that is Jay Gatsby's character to a T, but the whole book becomes much more accessible and appealing under the title The Great Gatsby.

Watch out also for words that have double meanings. Take a look at this business book title: The Epic Keynote: Presentation Skills and Styles of The Wealthy Speaker. In today's slang, "epic" means pretty much the same as "awesome." The Urban Dictionary defines it as "unusually large, powerful or wonderful." However, a longstanding common meaning of the word is "extremely long," literally long, as in Gilgamesh or The Odyssey. Extremely long is not a characteristic most audiences want in a keynote address. So this title has a big point against it when it comes to English language lovers who might otherwise be interested in public speaking.

Foreign words are usually problematic as well. Julia Child's top idea for her breakthrough book on French cooking was La Bonne Cuisine Française. Thank goodness her editors were able to convince her to accept Mastering the Art of French Cooking instead. For one thing, most people who want to learn French cooking do not speak French. And second, it wouldn't be at all clear from that title that the book was actually in English!

If you believe you have clarity under control and want to ramp up the cleverness of a book title, look for a way to bring together opposites or contrasts to create tension in a phrase. We see this in The Big Short by Michael Lewis, a journalistic story about the 2008 financial crisis. Not only do "big" and "short" pull in two opposite directions, "short" has a specialized meaning in the world of Wall Street, and Lewis is saying that such "shorts" played a big role in nearly destroying the worldwide economy. I'm not a fan of Lewis's subtitle for this book, however: Inside the Doomsday Machine, because it fails to clarify what the book is about. Tweaked to Inside the Wall Street Doomsday Machine, the subtitle would be much clearer. Lewis was already a bestselling author when he published his book, so don't take his unclarity as your model!

For another example of cleverness through contrast, consider again Forks Over Knives: The Plant-based Way to Health. The main title conveys the message, eat fruits, veggies, and grains rather than meat in just three words, and the subtitle not only clarifies the meaning of the main title but also explains why you should eat this way – for your health, not necessarily for morality or to save the planet.

On the other hand, one genre where cleverness may trump clarity is children's books. People expect and want books for young children to be whimsical, so cleverness in a title signals that a certain book does have that kind of appeal. For instance, the title The Day the Crayons Quit caught my eye, promising a fun story that young kids can relate to. After all, crayons are their friends.

Remember, though, in most cases, clarity for your title is your number one concern.

In the next lesson, let's look at tone and audience for book titles.

Image Description
Written by

Marcia Yudkin