On Writing Blurbs

Blurb, definitions:

noun, a short publicity notice (as on a book jacket)

verb, to describe or praise in a blurb

Scenario: you are asked to blurb a fellow author’s book. Wonderful! This request says they trust and admire you as a reader and writer yourself.

How do you decide whether to write a blurb?

You don’t have to know the author well, or even their work. Sometimes you know both well, sometimes not. If you are unfamiliar with the author but open to taking the time required to write a blurb, ask to see the manuscript in question and read/skim before committing. You want the blurb to be a good fit for both the author, the book, and you. I usually know the author’s work—if not the book in question, I am familiar with individual poems, or a journal they edit. We typically have some connection. Connection is important! Ie, often someone will be asking you to blurb their book because they feel they share a connection with you as a reader or writing peer. It’s an honor, especially when sincere (e.g. the asker has thought about it, and the ask is not flippant or based on a popularity assumption). If you don’t have time to write a blurb or feel the title if not a good fit for your readership, congratulate the author on their forthcoming book and politely decline! Please don’t ghost them. Even a sentence of response is much more welcome and supportive.

Scenario: You’ve said yes! Now what?

How do you write a good blurb?

A blurb is a genre, and like all genres it has conventions and expectations that come along with it. A blurb is not a space to critique or even simply describe. A BLURB NEEDS TO PRAISE. This is why it’s important to only blurbs book you can sincerely throw your support behind. It is easier to praise when it is the truth, which is why I commit to honesty when I write blurbs—my praise is sincere. As an aside: your reader can tell if your bluffing or full of hot air—ultimately, an insincere blurb has the potential to harm a book, author, and turn the reader away (the opposite of what a good blurb should do!). Knowing that our words and our praise have weight, only say yes to a blurb if your heart can be in it. A good blurb leads with praise and closes with praise. It is not a book review—you are showing up strictly to support the author.

How long is a blurb?

A good blurb is short. My dad always says be brief, be brilliant, be gone. A blurb is equally a flex of your writing skills (in the service of another! but still!). Don’t be throwing around unclear metaphors or using hyperbole for the sake of hyberole. Be clear, specific, and try to keep it between 80-150 words. The author of the text you’re blurbing had to cut words to make their text the sharpest it could be—since the blurb is much shorter than the book, and often in a highly visible place (back cover or, lucky blurber, front of the book’s cover), treat your blurb like the high real estate genre it is: every sentence, every adjective or article matters. Ask the author/press for a wordcount ballpark.

Some best practices:

DO: Read other blurbs as models. See what folks are doing. Take notes of repetitive trends and go-to moves. You can learn as much from a terrible blurb as a sparkling one.

DO: Remember that you are entering a field of praise when you write a blurb, which means you need to step up to that level of praise. Ever heard the saying “Damned by faint praise”? This is a reality when you write a blurb!

DO: use active voice in a blurb, and a dynamite and VERY BRIEF quotation.

DO: be very specific and cite particulars when you write a blurb—say what could only be said of the text in front of you. If you can lift your blurb and apply it to another text, it’s not specific enough and your heart and attention aren’t in it.

DO: read your blurb aloud and proof your blurb. Double check your pronouns and spelling. Nothing says a blurber wasn’t paying attention like a misspelled title, name, or misgendering of the author. Look at the author’s bio online to confirm pronouns, and ask them if needed! Always!

DON’T: fall back on easy language, like “rich attention to detail,” “evocative,” brave, unapologetic, necessary (there are political implications here of course, check out how WOC are routinely blurbed/reviewed). As a reviews editor, I see this language repeated until it means nothing. If you are deeply compelled to use language like the above, qualify it and say why the book is brave or necessary or detailed! Cite details, name names, be as specific and particular as possible. Let’s be honest, most books have rich detail, one way or another. Tell me, as the blurb reader, why this book is different! Name the book’s special work; tell me what lit you up inside about the author’s language, story telling, lines, historical recounting.

DON’T: put the focus on you. It is not about you, it is about the title and the author. I almost can’t believe this needs to be said, but if your attention is on you, you are failing the blurb and the author you chose to support.

DON’T: go on too long. Be brief, be brilliant, be gone. If you do give the author/press a long blurb, let them know whether they have your permission to cut/abbreviate it. Be aware that they might do that without asking, and decide whether you need to shorten it yourself if that is the case. Give them the permission they need to make a good book. Try not to be a thorn in their side. Respond to emails.

I pulled Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad off my shelf just now, because I remember a D.A. Powell blurb that took the wind out of me. (And yes, I always read the blurbs on a book, because they are essential paratexts to how a book is positioned in the world—praise is instructive, y’all!) Let’s look at all three blurbs on this Alice James Book title:

Naomi Shihab Nye:

“Jane Springer’s poems are dazzling, devastating, and utterly original—sound-rich, sensual, sensational—you will be carried away.”

A single sentence. When you are Naomi Shihab Nye, or a writer with a career of similar caliber, you can get away with a single sentence! Note what Nye can do with a single sentence, the alliteration/consonance of her adjectives (dazzling, devastation; sound-rich, sensual, sensational), the dramatic m-dashes, the heights and depths of the emotional sentence. When Nye tells the back cover reader that they will be carried away well, you believe her. Nye’s name—well respected, beloved—is doing a lot of work here as well. If you are a lesser known writer, you might need to lean into convincing the back cover reader to remember or note your name.

D.A. Powell:

“I have a feeling Jane Springer met the devil at the crossroads. There’s not a note she can’t pluck, and the music is like no one else’s: rich as the red clay of Georgia, startling as a raccoon’s bite, ‘crazy as a shithouse rat,’ and cool as sweet tea on a sultry afternoon. There’s some nitty-gritty here, hauled up from the freezer chest on the porch, unearthed like a mastodon that’s been buried far longer than we can imagine. And there is tremendous vitality and sublimity in this ‘dark county of the heart’ where her music comes from. Whatever devilish bargain has been struck, it has been a boon to all parties. Hallelujah for us all.”

This is praise—this is gorgeous, specific, glinting praise at work. It tells a story as much as it describes in imaginative and startling detail. It says something about the generous heart that read Springer’s book and connected with her poems, it says what a brilliant writer D.A. Powell is, AND it is one of the best blurbs I’ve ever read. It ends in hallelujah. Read it, meditate on it, learn from it.

Jane Miller:

“Not since I read James Agee’s A Death in the Family have I been so compelled to stare into the eyeballs of chiggers and mildew. Jane Springer is on a thin reed in the present moment reciting incantatory poems. May I plainly say, ‘What a goddamn beautiful book this is.’”

When a blurb swears on the back cover—well, you know the book you are holding is a live coal. Miller cites another text—a southern, autobiographical novel set in Tennessee—to help position her reader in relation to Springer’s work. She also drops an evocative and slightly mysterious line about Springer: “Jane Springer is on a thin reed in the present moment reciting incantatory poems.” That single sentence makes you want more, doesn’t it? It makes you want to find out why an author would be described this way.

Taken together, these three blurbs form a chorus on the back of Murder Ballad—they sing together in praise of Springer’s poems. Blurb writing helps us remember, by putting into practice, that we are not individuals floating in an ether but persons tied to other persons, and that books take a chorus of labor and attention to bring into the world. You are participating in something larger than yourself when you write a blurb—remember that your words will literally be situated besides the words of others. Make yours stand out, but also, like the combined voices of a choir, teach yours to sing well with and besides others.