How to Edit Blurbs

Three overlapping blurbs in speech bubbles

Blurbs are quotations of praise that appear on book covers and jackets, in press releases, on author websites, posters, and ads, in social media, and in the unnumbered pages at the beginning of a novel or creative nonfiction book. They may be solicited or excerpted from published reviews. Any writer or publisher who finds it hard to get attention in the traditional review press may be especially motivated to solicit blurbs from influential writers or celebrities.

It’s debatable whether blurbs really do influence book buyers, since many readers assume that blurbers are friends and mentors of the writer or publisher, but readers of some genres expect to see a long list of enthusiastic recommendations, and it’s hard to see how a good blurb could hurt.

Attributing Blurbs

Blurbs may be styled in various ways, but typically the blurber’s name or review source is tacked on to the end of the quote, sometimes with an em dash, sometimes on a separate line, sometimes with a dialogue tag. The actual quote may be distinguished by quotation marks or italics or other design treatment.

“Best ever!”—PinkInk Review

I couldn’t stop reading!—Maud Mincy, author of An Exclamatory Life

“I couldn’t stop reading!” says Maud Mincy, author of An Exclamatory Life

I couldn’t stop reading!
—Maud Mincy, author of An Exclamatory Life

Editing and Styling Publicity Blurbs

Blurbs are often edited for style, and they may be shortened whether space is an issue or not. Although CMOS lists permissible changes to quotations (paragraphs 13.7–8), the conventions for editing quotations in scholarly works are strict and may be overkill for publicity materials. No one wants to see a spray of ellipses and square brackets on a book jacket.

Let’s take a look at the kinds of editing that are appropriate for various uses of a quotation from a review. Let’s take Calliope Raston’s book, The Gentleman Called. (I just made it up.)

Original review, unedited

Here’s a reader review, typos and all. (I made this up too.)

The author has done something magnificent in the Gentleman Caller. In spite of having dozens of subplots—over the course of some 1,200 pages—she manages to keep everything staight, and rarely was I able to stop reading at the end of a chapter. Over and over the twists and turns surprised me. The characters are the most unique you’ll ever find, and the suspense is killing. The librarian Lavender is hilarious. My favorite part in Gentleman Caller was where she yells “I threw a wrench into things? Here’s me throwing a wrench!” and then throws an actual wrench at Boyd. This will be perfect for my book club!

Editing for quotation in a scholarly book or journal

Why would a scholarly book or journal quote a review? Perhaps as part of an analysis of the effect of reader reviews on sales, or to show the critical reception of a famous writer’s early works. There are many reasons.

CMOS guidelines for this kind of quoting are strict. Researchers and scholars expect quoted text to reflect the original in all essential details, and so do their readers. To ensure this level of transparency, Chicago allows silent changes only to certain kinds of punctuation and for insignificant typos. Ellipses (. . .) must mark where words were left out, and square brackets must enclose any words that were inserted or changed. A minor typo (like “staight”) may be corrected silently, but errors that are relevant to the argument, such as the misquotation of the book title in the example above, are marked with “[sic].” And of course, in scholarly writing all quotations must be fully sourced with citations.

As you can imagine, that kind of mess would never do on the jacket of Raston’s novel.

Editing for a book jacket

In editing a quotation for a book jacket, the goal is still to be careful and honest, but reasonable changes may be made.

“Calliope Raston has done something magnificent in The Gentleman Called. . . . Over and over, the twists and turns surprised me. . . . This will be perfect for my book club!”—Gennifer Garland, Seattle

Notice in the example:

  • the author’s name has been inserted silently in place of “she” in the original review;
  • the book title has been corrected and put in italics, per Chicago style (note that “The” is part of the title);
  • a comma has been added after “Over and over”; and
  • instead of a full citation (which might include the name of the website where the review was posted, along with a date and URL), the reviewer’s name and city have been judged to suffice.

Although ellipses carefully mark every omission, it’s a good idea to keep these to a minimum.

Editing for a poster or social media ad or trailer

Anyone editing pull quotes for a poster or ad walks the ethical edge. Grab the best phrases and tweak them silently but honestly. The addition of exclamation marks is common but controversial, so don’t skip the “Ethics” section below. Sources may be styled in various ways.

“Magnificent!”—Gennifer Garland, Seattle

“Killing suspense.”—Gennifer Garland, Seattle News

“Perfect for book clubs!”—Gennifer Garland, author of The Class Menagerie

Ethics of Blurb Editing

Of course, there’s an ethical imperative to retain a reviewer’s original intent when editing a blurb. We’ve all read examples of outrageous clippings that change a review like “A monumental bore” to “Monumental!” If a writer or editor has doubts about tweaking a review, it’s important that they run the changes by the reviewer for approval. (That’s a good idea in any case.)

And second, a source should always be given, even if minimally identified. There’s probably a limit to the gullibility of readers.

In a blog post for the Guardian (UK), theater reviewer Michael Hann described seeing a misleading excerpt from one of his reviews on a marquee. “The only way to avoid being quoted misleadingly, so far as I can tell, is to make sure your opinion of any piece of art is completely unequivocal,” he wrote. “That’s why, from now on, I am refining my reviewing into one-word summations of what I see or hear: ‘Great,’ ‘OK’ and ‘Crap.’ ”*

Blurbing Etiquette

Request a blurb in a personal message, without expectations. Famous potential blurbers have little time and motivation to read or blurb work by obscure writers, and they probably receive many requests. On the other hand, blurbers too get publicity when their names appear in connection with someone else’s successful book. If your work is promising, even a big name might want to grab a bit of the spotlight.

When you ask for a blurb, mention that it may be edited to house style and/or shortened in some contexts, and be sure to give a date by which you need the blurb.

If the answer is no, replying with warm thanks for the consideration will leave you in a position to ask again when you’re more famous yourself.

If you’re the one being asked for a blurb and you’re unable to comply, lessen the pain by responding promptly. Cite overwork or deadlines and invite future requests unless you’re sure you couldn’t bear it. It’s just polite.

And if you yourself write a blurb in response to a request, it’s fine to ask the author or editor for approval over changes beyond shortening or styling.

* Michael Hann, “Warning: Review Quotes Can Be Very Misleading,” Guardian (UK), May 8, 2012.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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One thought on “How to Edit Blurbs

  1. Great article! One of the only good things about the lockdown is having time to read things like this, which I might not normally have time to read (or even be aware of)!

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