What Makes a Good Blurb?
It can sometimes be difficult to work out whether you are likely to enjoy a certain book. If you are a reader, you only have a few ways of determining what the book is going to be about: you can read reviews, try to gain an impression of it from its cover, or you can read the book’s blurb. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any reader walking into a bookshop and buying a book without at least glancing at its blurb. This is because blurbs can be fantastic indicators of a book’s content; they can provide an overview of its plot, give an indication of its genre, and they can suggest to readers whether or not they are likely to enjoy the book.
Because blurbs are so important, it is a good idea to think about what makes a good blurb. This can be useful for both readers and writers. For avid readers, learning what a well-written blurb looks like might help them to make a more informed decision about the books they buy. Yet knowing what makes a good blurb is also very important for writers; a good blurb can make the difference between a book that sells and a book that doesn’t. A bad blurb can put readers off and stop them from reading what may have turned out to be one of their favourite books of all time. No author wants this to happen, which is why a good, well-written blurb is so important.
Before we dive into talking about what makes a good blurb, it is a good idea to remind ourselves of what a blurb actually is. To do this, we’re going to take a look at five very different books from five different publishers, and we’re going to consider their blurbs. These books belong to different genres and are aimed at different audiences, but they all have one thing in common: they all have a blurb.
#1 - Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay
First up is Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay, a book published by Corvus in 2016. This is a contemporary thriller about a mother whose love for her daughter leads to some unfortunate consequences. Here is the blurb:
Laura loves her daughter more than anything in the world.
But nine-year-old Autumn is being bullied. Laura feels helpless.
When Autumn fails to return home from school one day, Laura goes looking for her. She finds a crowd of older children taunting her little girl.
In the heat of the moment, Laura makes a terrible choice. A choice that will have devastating consequences for her and her daughter.
This blurb is made up of 68 words and does a good job of setting the scene for Bone by Bone. It uses short sentences, large spaces, and words like “terrible” and “devastating” to hint towards the thriller genre. It is also worth noticing that it uses a couple of clichés (“more than anything in the world” and “in the heat of the moment”). Clichés should normally be avoided in a piece of writing (we wrote a blog post explaining why here), but they can sometimes add something to a blurb. In this case, they firmly root Bone by Bone alongside contemporary novels. The blurb uses contemporary slang and clichés, which suggests it is set in a modern time. Overall, this blurb gives a good impression of what the book is going to be about, without giving too many details away.
#2 - Byzantium by Judith Herrin
Now let’s look at something different: Byzantium by Judith Herrin, a non-fiction book that was published by Penguin in 2007. Blurbs for non-fiction books tend to be composed in a very different way to the blurbs written for fiction books, and this is clear when we consider Byzantium. Here’s the blurb:
Byzantium was one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen. A dynamic, cosmopolitan melting-pot of East and West, Christianity and paganism, its empire lasted for over 1000 years. Judith Herrin tells its extraordinary story afresh, showing how Byzantium led Europe out of the dark ages and into the modern world.
At only 52 words, this is the shortest blurb out of the five considered in this blog post. It is direct, short, and gets straight to the point. Because Byzantium tells of the history of Byzantium, the blurb of this book focuses on the majesty of the place, rather than the book, itself. Yet it also glorifies its author, Judith Herrin. This is a common trope of non-fiction books; their blurbs are more about their subject matter and author than they are about any kind of narrative. This is simply due to the nature of non-fiction books, and it means that blurbs such as this don’t need to waste words drawing readers into a plot or giving a sense of any characters. Instead, they can give a quick overview of the book whilst still drawing readers in with compelling language.
#3 - Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Here’s another fiction book; Scythe by Neal Shusterman is a dystopian fantasy novel aimed at young adult readers. This edition was published by Walker in 2018. Here’s what the blurb says:
Thou shalt kill.
What if death was the only thing left to control?
In a perfect world, the only way to die is to be gleaned by a professional scythe. When Citra and Rowan are chosen to be apprentice scythes, they know they have no option but to learn the art of killing. However, the terrifying responsibility of choosing their victims is just the start.
Corruption is the order of the day and Citra and Rowan need to stick together to fight it.
Then they are told that one of them will have to glean the other…
The intended audience of Scythe is clear from the mere layout of the blurb; the back cover of this book is aesthetically pleasing with bright colours and exciting fonts. Yet this blurb also resembles that of Bone by Bone; it is divided into similar-looking paragraphs and the first line – which could be called a subheading – is written in a bold font for emphasis. The broken paragraphs increase the tension within the blurb whilst the subheading draws attention to both the blurb and the book, itself. Another thing to note about this blurb is that it is quite long; it is made up of 97 words, making it the longest out of the blurbs being considered in this blog post. It goes into great detail about the book’s plot, which can help readers to gain a better impression of what it is going to be about, yet arguably it goes a little too far, giving away too much information. After all, there is an element of this blurb that could ruin the plot of Scythe even before a reader opens it up.
#4 - Carrie by Stephen King
Next up is Carrie by Stephen King. This gothic horror novel was first published in 1974, but this edition was published in 2011 by Hodder. Here’s the blurb:
Carrie White has a gift – the gift of telekinesis.
To be invited to Prom Night by Tommy Ross is a dream come true for Carrie – the first step towards social acceptance by her high school colleagues.
But events will take a decidedly macabre turn on that horrifying and endless night as she is forced to exercise her gift on the town that mocks and loathes her…
This blurb is 66 words long and although it is reasonably direct in its approach, it is nevertheless descriptive. Words like “macabre”, “horrifying”, and “endless” indicate the genre of Carrie whilst making the blurb more effective. It can be argued that this blurb, like that of Scythe, ruins an element of the book’s plot by giving too much away. From reading this blurb, it is quite easy to deduce what is going to happen in the book. Nevertheless, Carrie, unlike Scythe, doesn’t rely on many twists. It is written in an epistolary style and reflects on the dreaded Prom Night as though it has already happened. This blurb therefore seems to reflect the nature and style of Carrie. This is also the case with the formatting of the book; whilst most of the text on the back cover is written in a white font, the blurb is written in red, which, again, helps readers to identify the book’s genre.
#5 - The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Finally, let’s look at an older, very well-known book. The Picture of Dorian Gray was written by Oscar Wilde in 1890, yet, like all of the modern books considered in this blog post, it still needs a blurb. Here’s what it says:
Dorian Gray is having his picture painted by Basil Hallward, who is charmed by his looks. But when Sir Henry Wotton visits and seduces Dorian into the worship of youthful beauty with an intoxicating speech, Dorian makes a wish he will live to regret: that all the marks of age will now be reflected in the portrait rather than on Dorian’s own face. The stage is now set for a masterful tale about appearance, reality, art, life, truth, fiction and the burden of conscience.
The first thing to notice about this blurb is that, unlike most of the other blurbs in this list, it is not broken up into separate paragraphs. This is unusual for the blurb of a fiction book, but that isn’t necessarily a problem, for although it may not incite as much tension as the blurbs of Bone by Bone, Scythe, and Carrie do, it is nevertheless effective. It provides a very descriptive overview of the book, reflecting Wilde’s detailed writing. It also gives an overview of some of the themes that the book tackles (including “appearance”, “reality”, and “art”). This can be a useful addition to a blurb, particularly in terms of classics or works of literary fiction. It is worth noting that although both Carrie and The Picture of Dorian Gray are both technically “gothic” books, their blurbs are very different. This demonstrates how varied blurbs can be, even for books that belong to the same genre.
What are the Features of a Blurb?
Now that we have considered some examples of blurbs, we can start to determine which features they have in common. The most basic of these is that they all provide a summary of the book. Yet there are a few additional features that a lot of these blurbs share, such as:
Some blurbs may also include rhetorical questions, ellipses, and short, powerful sentences. These stylistic elements can increase the tension within the blurb and help to pull more readers in. After all, the primary purpose of a blurb is to catch readers’ attention and encourage them to read on.
We now understand some of the features that make up a blurb, but how can that help us to work out what a “good” blurb is? Well, any blurb that contains some – or perhaps even all – of these features has the potential to be a good blurb. It needs to be compelling, and it needs to provide readers with an impression of what the book is going to be about. We also know how long a blurb should be; out of the blurbs considered, they all range between 50 and 100 words, with an average word count of 73. These words can either form one paragraph or multiple paragraphs; this can depend on the genre of the book and the writer’s personal choice.
Another thing to consider when thinking about blurbs is how much of a book’s plot they should give away. As we mentioned earlier, the blurb of Neal Shusterman’s Scythe arguably gives away a little too much of the book’s plot. It has the potential to ruin what could be a massive twist, which arguably means that it isn’t the best blurb – yes, it pulls readers in, but, by revealing too much of the book’s plot, it may ruin their reading experience.
It therefore seems that the answer to the question, “what makes a good blurb?” is balance. Blurbs should interest readers, catch their attention, and encourage them to read on, but they should also accurately reflect the book in question and not give away too many details. There are no fixed rules when it comes to paragraphs, formatting, or punctuation, but a good blurb should be well written, include compelling language, and provide a brief synopsis of the book, its genre, and perhaps also its themes.
So whilst blurbs are extremely important in regards to whether a person will read a book, it seems that they can be very varied. As a result, the most important thing to remember when considering what makes a good blurb is whether it does its job successfully: does it encourage you to read on? Or does is make you want to put the book down and never look at it again?
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