Overused Words in Book Blurbs

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Vivienne Woodward


Vivienne Woodward lives in Philly and works as the events coordinator for an indie bookstore. She can often be found drinking too much coffee in the sunny spot on her couch and over-identifying with fictional characters. She enjoys collecting hobbies, dancing to radio pop, and rearranging the book stacks on her side tables.

Book blurbs, book blurbs, book blurbs. What is the point of them, really? If they aren’t glowing and effusive, the quote would never appear on the cover of the book. Therefore, the act of asking someone to blurb a book is essentially asking them to fit as much praise into two sentences as possible or…waste their time reading a book and then writing what they ACTUALLY think only for it to be thrown into the trash. In a way, the blurber is set up to fail. And by fail I mean rely on the same platitudes that appear over and over on the covers and back covers of books. There are only so many ways to say “You should read this book. It’s good.” In fact, there are some phrases and keywords that appear so often in blurbs, they have ceased to have any meaning at all. In the same way that the word awesome has been diluted from meaning literally awe-inspiring to what you use to describe the passable tortellini your roommate cooked for dinner, certain overused blurb words have lost their power, their ability to distinguish the great from the good.

Let’s start with the most obvious: “tour de force.” (yes this is a wedding toast) defines tour de force as “an exceptional achievement by an artist, author, or the like, that is unlikely to be equaled by that person or anyone else; stroke of genius.” Let’s zoom in: “that is UNLIKELY TO BE EQUALED by that person or anyone else.” Obviously, everyone’s definition of this will be different. For some, Moby Dick is a tour de force. For others, Moby Dick is an 800-page, extremely informative description of a whale. I absolutely accept that there can be a few tour de forces floating around at all times, depending on who you ask. But for quite a while, tour de force appeared on nearly every book. Tour de force became so diluted that at this point, it basically means “nice job.” Listen, I am in awe of people who write books, in ultra awe of people who write GOOD books. I agree that, in some ways, every book IS a tour de force. But if indeed we think that every book, simply by existing, is a tour de force, then it is not a helpful descriptor in a book blurb which is always attempting to make THIS book more attractive than THAT book. In short, it becomes meaningless.

Now let’s devote a moment to adverbs. Although many writers discourage the overuse of adverbs, I would be willing to bet that many of those same writers have been guilty of injecting excess adverbs into their book blurbs. It seems there is a LEVEL of effusiveness required of the contemporary blurb that only an adverb (or two or three or four) can satisfy. Or, perhaps, it is the option to stuff even more adjectives into only a few sentences that makes the adverb so appealing to blurbers (or more likely, to publicists). Most books are many things and saying “The book was heartbreaking, but also funny, and at times it was thought-provoking and every once in awhile it was mind-blowing and then again sometimes it was mundane and then a few times it was even tragic…” is not great. But! With the use of adverbs! “A heartbreakingly, tragically funny book; a thought-provoking critique of the mundanely cyclical tempo of our lives.” We’ve now stuffed a bunch more descriptors into the blurb under the guise of modifying an adjective — but really, the reader gets the picture. It’s just like the first sentence — the book “contains multitudes” — but it fits much more neatly on a cover. Just for fun: a few more of my favorite overused adverbs in book blurbs: staggeringly, profoundly, relentlessly, and stunningly.

One word that seems to get thrown around a lot in book blurbs is “unputdownable.” Some people go for the more poetic “I read it in one breathless sitting.” But oh so often we get “unputdownable.” I don’t think I can write the word “unputdownable” without putting it in quotes. I think that’s because it’s a word that is literally only ever used in book blurbs and therefore in a quote. Imagine someone saying, wow that macaroni was so good, my fork was literally unputdownable. Hilarious! I think we should start using it in everyday life. My cell phone is so addicting it’s absolutely unputdownable! My baby is such a baby he’s totally unputdownable! My TV remote is unputdownable; my husband will always snatch it. I think if we used this hilarious word more often in day to day life, it would actually make it MORE meaningful in book blurbs. See! It’s a valid word that means something to normal people and not just a desperate attempt to get readers to bring this book to the beach and not that one! As of now, my eyes glaze over it. If I was skimming a book in order to provide a blurb for the 400th time, I would probably treat it as an “unputdownable” object too — as in, let me just get this g-damned book off my desk.

Let’s wrap this thing up, shall we? I know, dear reader, that your eyes glazed over from the first mention of “tour de force” because it is a meaningless word in the way of you finding out what famous author read and is recommending X book to you. Here is a book blurb that applies to every single book so you can skip reading the blurbs and instead just choose the book you buy, by, I don’t know, the cover design: “This heartbreakingly poignant book ripped me to shreds in its relentlessly profound investigation of contemporary life. This tour de force is unputdownable, so unputdownable I even read it on the toilet. Shockingly, heartbreakingly, searingly moving.” You might think you could cut that bit about the toilet, but you really want to emphasize how LITERALLY unputdownable the book was, otherwise people might think that book blurbs have no real meaning.