Why Do We Buy?
If you’ve ever bought a book on impulse, it was probably due (at least in part) to the blurb on the back or the sales copy on the website. Blurbs are those few paragraphs that tell you what the book's about and give you a compelling reason to buy.
But, as an author, how can we turn this to our advantage? How can we write that back cover copy that hooks a passing browser, and turns him or her into a loyal reader?
The Blurb Is...
This back cover copy includes a description of the book, and also testimonials or advance reviews -- things you only ask for when you've written the book.
But there are parts that you can write at any stage of the process. Indeed, it can help you focus if you write your blurb before you even start writing the book.
The trick with writing a great blurb is to give away enough of what's inside the book, without giving any plot spoilers (for fiction) or going so in-depth the reader doesn't want to read on (for non-fiction).
Your reader has to be pulled in just far enough to care about your subject, but not too far, or they’ll have no reason to buy.
For you, the author, walking this fine line, and getting it right, means you have to have the utmost clarity on what you're writing. If there's any doubt at all about your content or the path of the narrative, then you'll struggle to write those few hundred words that make up your back cover blurb or online book description.
If you get it right, however, then the writing just got a lot easier.
Three Act Structure
You can think of it like a plot in itself; your blurb as a three-act structure. Wesley K. Andrews sees the blurb as,
The standout, the meat, and the emotional payoff.
You want to catch the reader’s attention, give them the content, and then give them a reason to care.
Let's have a look at how this works in practice.
Blurb Writing 101
Go over to your bookshelf or go to your favorite bookshop and look at the back cover blurb of one of your favorite books.
Do this with a few more books. Is there a pattern?
While there’s no official formula for blurb writing, what you're likely to see is a similar layout on the backs of those books you just looked at. It usually goes something like this:
Backstory: the blurb opens with exposition about where we are -- context -- perhaps about the setting (if we're talking fiction), or the author's background and experience if the book is non-fiction.
Characters: with a fiction book, the main character is introduced in a line or two. A non-fiction book might present the premise of the book at this point.
Main conflict: the blurb (sticking with fiction) introduces the main conflict, or at least the first conflict (to avoid spoilers in a novel).
And you can use that same dramatic tension with non-fiction. By setting the stage for a controversy, challenge, or struggle, you'll achieve the same effect as the main conflict in a novel.
So, as you can see, the blurb is a trailer for the book. It gives a momentary glimpse into the world of the book, and it is truly momentary. There isn't the space for detail; the skill is in the brevity.
The blurb is a self-contained piece of marketing, setting up the tension, leaving us with a cliff-hanger, so that we are interested enough to buy the book and read on.
The Blurb Is Not...
Blurbs don’t summarize the whole of the book, or even the beginning of the book. It sounds logical that they might -- after all a snippet of a blog post is often those first couple of paragraphs.
Rather, your blurb should present only the faintest outline of the first few chapters. What you leave out is as important as what you put in -- the point is to entice, not to inform.
If you give away too much, the reader can be easily bored -- they've already read it!
Avoid the Cliché
Take a look at the back covers of those books you pulled off the shelf. Chances are some of them go too far into the realm of sensationalism that they're...well, dare we say, bad. Nothing more than a PR exercise in clichéd, bloated sentences.
On the back cover of a mystery novel, you might find, “A hardened detective with a score to settle.” Or perhaps this on the back of a fantasy novel: “Awoken hundreds of years ago, summoned by fire.”
You get the idea. These are stock sentences that don't have any emotional appeal.
And let’s not forget some favorite go-to blurb phrases, like “a race against time,” and stock conventions, like the use of single lines for dramatic effect.
To make your blurb sound good, you have to avoid clichés like the plague. Stick with compelling language, something strong and direct. Leave cheesy phrases for other authors.
It's a good idea to keep a list of what you don't like about blurbs you read, as much as what you do. Ask yourself why you dislike them, and then use those reasons as a checklist or benchmark when you write your own.
It Doubles as an Outline
For the new writer a blurb is a perfect tool to help you to create a rough outline of your book. It won’t be as thorough as your full, formal outline or storyboard, but it’s a quick way of making sure you have a clear, and solid narrative.
Go ahead and write out your own. Take a moment to do it now if you want -- don’t worry if it’s bad or good, but make sure you have the elements of backstory -- why it's interesting, a reason to connect -- your characters or the premise of your non-fiction book (asking, all the time, "what's in it for the reader?"), and the payoff or the main conflict -- give your reader a reason to care.
If you’re struggling to write the blurb, try to work out where you're in trouble. Because chances are, you're not clear enough about your plot or storyline, or the position you're taking in your nonfiction book.
Oranges are not the Only Fruit
Let’s say I have an idea for a non-fiction book about oranges and their positive effects on health. I think I have a good idea of what the book will be about, but my blurb says otherwise:
It’s safe to say oranges changed the world. They’re one of the most popular fruits in the world, and you probably snack on one once in a while. But what’s happening behind the peel? As it turns out, John Smith reports, there’s a lot going on in this superfood. And you’ll be surprised at just how good oranges are for you.
Hmm, are you bored yet?
It’s a good start––it has all the necessary elements. But, when I read it, I can’t work out what the key point of the book is. Is it about the cellular makeup of oranges? Is it about the nutritional aspect? Both? Something else?
How about this:
It’s safe to say oranges changed the world. They’re one of the most popular fruits in the world, and you probably snack on one once in a while. But what’s happening behind the peel? John Smith tracks down scientists and nutrition experts to get the scoop on this superfood. And you’ll be surprised at just how good oranges are for you.
This second version isn't that different––there's just one single sentence that's been removed and replaced with another.
Yet it makes all the difference.
I know instantly that the book will look at both the scientific and nutritional aspects of oranges and discuss their health benefits.
And now that I have a blurb that's clear, that (hopefully!) hooks my reader, I can start planning out the detail of the content, chapter by chapter. My outline will be stronger, and it’ll take me less time.
The Power of the Blurb
If you have a clear blurb, you'll find it easier to finish your work and stick to your outline and main point. This will give you a headstart on marketing your book, and will also test your ability to write concisely in a way that engages and entices your reader to want to read more.
And don't wait until you're done with the book to write one. It will serve you as outline as well as promotional copy.
And more than anything, it’s a way to connect with potential readers.
If your blurb is lackluster, then head back to the grind, and polish it until it (and your book) shines.
Ian Chandler, a professional content marketer and writer based in Kent, Ohio is the author of The No B.S. Guide to Freelance Writing. He is Editor at Nukeblogger, a contributor for Freedom With Writing, and a writer for Haircut Inspiration.