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Writing Tip: How to Write a Winning Blurb

I sometimes advise authors to write their own blurb about their book in progress, to see if that helps them focus on what I call their book’s premise and promise, whence they can build a clearer structure overall. (This also helps them, and me, to come up with a description of the book for my own publishing list or other potential publishers.)

It may help you to take this exercise yourself.

By “blurb” I mean a condensed, concise, and compelling description of your book, á la a book advertisement, a book publisher’s description, or a review comment.

I am in England right now and so will consult my stack of book-review pages from several newspapers to see if I can find some examples.

Here’s one from the Sunday Times. In this case it’s the paper’s own lead-in description in its review of the book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World:

The American obsession with putting a positive spin on almost everything has had an extraordinarily negative effect on the nation, as this entertaining study of the happy industry shows.

The lead-in line for a review of Nazi Literature in the Americas reads:

Robert Bolano’s light-hearted work is not quite a novel, more of a spoof encyclopedia of imaginary fascists and their worthless literary endeavours.

I have a couple of issues of the book review section of the New York Times with me, too. Let’s see what it yields.

An advertisement of the book The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld leads off with the words:

The powerful true story of three brothers who took on the mob and became counterculture icons.

Some words excerpted from Kirkus Reviews are quoted and give further information:

Riveting, richly atmospheric pulp nonfiction … prose as tight and hard-boiled as any James Ellroy novel … a novelistic study of an iconoclastic criminal in revolutionary times.

I’m not suggesting that the author of such a manuscript say to those who ask what they’re working on (or put this in their book proposal to a publisher): My book is riveting and richly atmospheric. It is as hard-boiled as any James Ellroy novel…”

However, saying that it is a dramatic true story of three brothers who took on the mob and became counterculture icons and so forth is a clear way of describing the book and bears clues regarding how a book could be constructed. Note also how the subtitle of this book describes exactly what the book is about.

A full-page advertisement of the book Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson bears the words:

In Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson showed how to change the way we think about this volatile region of the world. Now, in Stones into Schools, he takes the next step, revealing how to promote peace there – stone by stone, school by school, one child at a time.

That’s an example of good publishing and good writing.

Consider a few descriptions of book from the best sellers list:

The nonfiction book A Lion Called Christian by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall is described thus:

Two men buy a pet lion cub in London, bring him to Africa when he is grown, and later have a heartwarming reunion; update of a 1971 book.

A short review of The Fleet Street Murders begins this way:

Charles Lenox, the amateur detective … is finally given the chance to pursue his dream of becoming a member of Parliament. But the hastily called election in far-off Stirrington comes at a most inopportune moment, just as this amiable gentleman sleuth … has involved himself in the baffling murders of two politically adversarial Fleet Street journalists.

I suppose a book blurb is analogous to the elevator speech in business: the statement of your program proposal or business pitch condensed into a compelling statement that can be made to an executive in the time it takes you to travel together from the ground floor to your office floor.

So spend some time working your manuscript into a short blurb. You may be unable to come up with a compelling statement, and this may indicate the need for a radical rethinking of what you’re doing. However, this exercise is likely to help you clarify for yourself, and for your prospective readers, just what you’re up to when you’re absent from society performing that most solitary of tasks: writing.

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