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Four elements of a good book description

One of the millions of small things that you’ll need to do before your book is published is write a description for your back cover. Don’t be fooled by the length of this project. For a lot of writers, these might be the most difficult 150 to 200 words you’ll write for your book (apart from your biography of course).

The trick about the back cover copy is that it’s not novel-writing, it’s marketing. The main goal of your description (to sell the book) differs from the goal of creative writing, which means the style of writing is going to differ as well.

Here are a few key things that make a successful book cover description:

1) Present tense

This is an easy rule to follow. The common practice for writing book descriptions, like any piece of writing that discusses a work of fiction, is to use present tense. Your book will stand out (and not in a good way) if you choose to go against this rule of thumb.

2) Action words and verbs

You only have about 150 words to wow your prospective readers, so it’s important to make those words count. Avoid adverbs like the plague because they will only add needless length to your description. Instead, opt for descriptive or action verbs that carry specific meanings.

Some examples of action verbs: rescue, leap, snatch, yank, dangle

Compare these descriptive verbs to these word pairings:

  • run quickly vs sprint
  • walk gracefully vs glide
  • smile widely vs grin

3) A strong first sentence

The average reader is going to have a very short attention span for your book description so you need to grab their attention quickly. This is why it’s so incredibly important to have a strong opening sentence that grabs your reader’s attention and hooks them into the story (similar to the function of your first chapter).

Look at the following sentences as an example:

Bad opening sentences

“After graduating from college, Sam Altman finds himself subject to an urge he doesn't understand, an urge drawing him away from civilization.” (From Wild Animus)

"Kristin Burns has lived her life by the philosophy 'Don't think, just shoot'--pictures, that is." (from You've Been Warned James Patterson)

The problem with these two sentences is that they don’t give you a clear picture of what the book is about. They’re focused on creating a catchy sentence that grabs your attention (my attention was certainly caught by “don’t think, just shoot: --pictures…").

You’ll notice in the following examples of great opening sentences that the writers are focused on telling you what the book is about. They use strong action words and set the scene with attention grabbing contexts. They are focused on telling you - the prospective reader - what to expect from this book.

Good opening sentences

“Thirteen-year-old Julie Whitaker was kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, witnessed only by her younger sister.” (from Good as Gone)

“For a long time, Nadja Spiegelman believed her mother was a fairy.” (from I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This: A Memoir)

In comparison to the previous examples, these opening sentences give you a taste of what the book is about. With only a few words, the first example tells you what the story is about (a kidnapping), who and what drives the story (the mystery surrounding Julie’s kidnapping), and what genre it is (thriller and mystery). The second example does a similar thing, by telling you who the protagonist is and hinting that the story will be about the relationship between her and her mother.

At the same time, both sentences pick out an attention-grabbing scene or scenario from the book (rather than focusing on interesting wording) to hook the reader’s attention.

4) Keep it short

Say what you need to say and get out. Try to distill your primary plot into as few words as you can manage. The shorter and more concise your description, the more likely you are to hook your readers attention and get them to come back for more.