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Ten things you need to know about writing your book blurb

Ten things you need to know about writing your book blurb

By Cally Worden |

Capturing the essence of your novel in a few short paragraphs is always going to be a challenge. Keep in mind these ten key questions when crafting your blurb, and you’ll be well on the way to writing stellar copy that will have your readers hooked on your book before they’ve even opened the cover.

1. What exactly is a ‘blurb’?

Before we launch into the art of blurb writing – and it is a craft in its own right – let’s be clear exactly what we’re talking about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a blurb as ‘a short description of a book, film, or other product written for promotional purposes’. The length, content and tone will (should) vary depending on the intended readership.

What most of us mean when we refer to ‘blurb’ is the text on the back of a book that summarises your story. In publishing parlance this has its own special term – back-cover copy, and it’s this that we’ll focus on here.

2. What is the purpose of a blurb?

This is the single most important thing to keep in mind when creating your blurb:

Blurb = Marketing

The words you craft for the back of your book are one of the most powerful marketing tools your novel has. Your carefully designed cover has helped your reader pick the book up – the words are what will keep it in their hand (physically, or online).

Let’s look at how to make that happen.

3. How long should a blurb be?

Your blurb should be short. Its purpose is to grab the attention of potential readers who will likely be scanning many blurbs in a short space of time. To stand out, yours needs to be concise and instantly engaging. Too short, and you can’t convey enough information; too long, and your back cover will look cluttered and you may put readers off.

Aim for around 100–150 words, with a 50-word minimum and 200 words as your maximum. There are always examples to be found that break with these guidelines, but a swift glance at the books on the shelves of your local bookshop will reassure you that 80–150 words is in the right ballpark.

4. Where do I begin?

It sounds obvious, but begin by reading your book – this time, as a consumer.

I’m often asked to write blurbs for books that I edit or proofread. Just as for the author, these editorial processes ensure I’m intimately familiar with the narrative – a huge plus – but they are not the right jumping off point for writing a blurb. You can know too much, if you know what I mean, so I always revisit a story purely as a reader before I begin.

There is no right or wrong way to approach writing a blurb, and how you do it will likely depend on your experience. My training in journalism means I’m familiar with short-form story summaries such as press releases, and this training is invaluable in helping me to swiftly trim extensive story detail into meaningful bitesize chunks designed to entice hungry readers.

But a blurb needs to have an emotional heart too, so with most books I still go back to basics and follow a simple six-point process that has never yet failed me:

First:

  1. Revisit the book as a reader, and while doing so write down any words or quotes that give you a buzz, or simply spring to mind as you’re reading – anything that appeals to you as a consumer of the story and instantly creates a sense of atmosphere, mood, character or setting. You’re looking for the stuff that stimulates a strong emotional response in you for any reason.

Then:

  1. Jot down a basic outline of the main plot points.
  2. Name your protagonist and antagonist and highlight their primary motivations and goals.
  3. Identify the key themes in your book.
  4. Specify your target genre.

Summarise:

  1. Weave your initial response-words and phrases together with the more factual information into a few short paragraphs in an exciting way. To help with this, think of your blurb as the shiny wrapping paper for your story, with a few gaps in the paper that hint at the delights inside.

The opening sentence is key – it must arrest your reader. This can be done by setting an interesting scene, asking a question, quoting key hook-lines from within, presenting the protagonist’s problem … and so on.

Grab your reader by the lapels and give them a shake. If your opener doesn’t do that, it’s time to rewrite – over and over until it does.

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5. What should I include?

One of the main mistakes people make when writing blurbs is to cram in too much detail.

The main part of your blurb needs only to specify:

  • Who your main character is
  • What problem(s) they face and who/what their antagonist is
  • Why your reader might care

And it’s advisable also to indicate:

  • Where and When the action happens (especially if location and timing are fundamental to the plot)
  • How the action might play out – this is your hook

Most blurbs generally conclude with a short paragraph that summarises the main themes, target genre, and an idea of what the reader will gain from reading the book.

6. What should I leave out?

Anything that exists to embellish your plot, cast or settings can be omitted. This includes backstory, and any mention of secondary characters unless they have a significant role to play.

Subplots exist to frame your narrative and provide context, motivation, distraction and diversion – they have no place in a blurb, except perhaps at an abstract level, such as a reference to a ‘life-changing event’ or an ‘old emotional wound reopened’, for example.

And reserve your love of description and scene-setting for the text, unless you’re writing in a genre where the world you’re building is a character in its own right – in this case a couple of choice hints of the setting will generally suffice.

Remember: you don’t need to outline your entire plot. Just set the scene, hint at the inciting incident and challenge it creates, and leave the outcome hanging.

7. What style should it be written in?

A blurb should generally be written in the present tense, and in the third person. This is practical advice that reflects convention, and feeds into what your readers expect to see in a blurb.

The trick is to add that little pinch of personality – the essence of your writing – to make your blurb different enough to matter. This is where voice and style can play a huge part.

Consider the narrator of your book and their voice, and use phrasing and language that reflects that. If your book is a comedy, the blurb should be light with a touch of humour. If it’s a dark, tense thriller, then the blurb needs sentences that are tight and punchy. For romance, a blurb will generally make some reference to the physical characteristics of a lead character, and setting often makes an appearance too. And so on.

Your book’s unique personality is the secret ingredient in your blurb recipe.

8. What makes a good blurb?

A decent blurb offers a fair representation of what readers will find within a book, and frames it in a way that stimulates curiosity.

Your primary goal is to make the reader want to know more.

The way you do this will differ depending on your genre and target market, and a great place to start is by selecting half a dozen books similar to yours that are selling well. Examine their blurbs to get a feel for how the text is shaped and, more importantly, what your readers will expect to see.

Your blurb must:

  • Hook a reader in the first sentence – use a question, scene, situation or perhaps an unexpected snippet of dialogue
  • Reassure your reader that the tropes they associate with the genre are present
  • Set the scene and mood for the story – dark, romantic, thrilling, suspenseful, etc.
  • Fit with and, if necessary, explain the title
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9. What kills a blurb?

Detail. And pedestrianism.

Consider the book Twilight. It’s basically a YA story about love, choices, and the concepts of good and evil.

The blurb for book one could have gone like this (spoiler alert):

When seventeen-year-old Bella moves to from sunny Arizona to live with her estranged father, Charlie Swan, in the rainy northern town of Forks, she expects a dull, damp life. She makes uninspiring friends in school, whose obsessions with simple teenage pastimes bore her. Mike makes it clear he likes her, but Bella falls for Edward, who turns out to be a vampire.

Undeterred by his dangerous secret, Bella falls madly in love with him, and finally meets his extended family, which is led by the local doctor, Carlisle, and his wife, Esme. Some mean vampires in another group put Bella’s life in danger, and she is rescued at the last minute by Edward. She almost dies. Can their love endure in these difficult circumstances?

There is so much wrong with these two paragraphs it’s hard to know where to start: there are too many characters introduced (Charlie, Mike, Carlisle, Esme); it includes spoilers (Edward is a vampire, Bella nearly dies but he saves her); the language is too stiff for YA; it lacks tension; it includes irrelevant backstory, and it sounds … well, dull.

In short, it’s not great.

Contrast this with one of the real blurbs (there have been several iterations), which reads like this:

When Isabella Swan moves to the gloomy town of Forks and meets the mysterious, alluring Edward Cullen, her life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn.

With his porcelain skin, golden eyes, mesmerizing voice, and supernatural gifts, Edward is both irresistible and impenetrable. Up until now, he has managed to keep his true identity hidden, but Bella is determined to uncover his dark secret.

What Bella doesn’t realize is that the closer she gets to him, the more she is putting herself and those around her at risk. And it might be too late to turn back …

 Deeply seductive and irresistibly compelling, Twilight is an extraordinary love story that will stay with you long after you have turned the final page.

Captivating – if this genre is your thing. But even if it’s not, this blurb is still a good example of how to arrest a reader and glue that book to their hand:

  • The first paragraph confirms the identities of the two main characters, sets the scene and mood, and hints at danger.
  • The second paragraph further cements familiarity with, and investment in, the characters by dropping the surnames and shortening the protagonist’s name to ‘Bella’. It continues to draw us in with talk of things ‘hidden’ and ‘dark secrets’.
  • The third paragraph reinforces the idea of risk, and drops the hook of potential catastrophe that may or may not be averted.
  • The blurb concludes with a bunch of emotive words that help create a frisson of excitement in the reader, and further defines the genre so readers know exactly what they’re getting.

These two very different versions of the same blurb are just three words different in length, but the real copy speaks with a far more confident and enticing voice.

10. Can I break the rules?

Absolutely. None of the guidance given here is absolute. It simply takes the concept of blurb writing and shows you how it’s usually done. And if you’re new to blurb writing it’s perhaps wise to start here. Walk before you can run, and all that.

But there are no rules in fiction. As an editor who spends my days tweaking manuscripts towards convention it pains me to write that … but it’s true.

It’s also true, however, that breaking with convention is a huge risk. It can pay off, as with Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting. His blurb (and book) are anything but conventional, yet generated a massive following. The blurb looked like this:

Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.

I know, right? But it works. And it does follow the advice to reflect the voice that lies between the covers.

In summary

Your book’s blurb is a fundamental part of the overall marketing strategy. Take the time to understand what readers of your target genre expect, and be prepared to put in the effort required to get it right. Play with the style if you wish, but do this with your eyes open to the risk of alienating some potential readers.

You’ve put in a monumental effort to get your book market-ready – your blurb deserves the same attention to detail.

Craft it with care.

You can find out more about Cally and her freelance editorial work by visiting her website.

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