Blurb and Synopsis: What’s the Difference?

Blurb and Synopsis: What’s the Difference?

Many authors seem to get confused by the terms ‘blurb’ and ‘synopsis’. They see the words thrown about on forums and writing advice blogs, and never quite get the difference. They know they should have a blurb, or a synopsis, or maybe both, but they’re not sure how to write them. Here, I’ll summarise the differences between the two and offer some pointers towards writing each one effectively.

Lots of authors seem to find themselves all at sea when it comes to writing their blurb or synopsis – and some editors, including me, even provide this as a service for books they’ve edited – but come on! You just wrote a whole BOOK! If you wrote it well, you should have a pretty clear idea of what it’s about – the characters, the themes, the main plot points – and those are the building blocks you need to write your summaries.

The first thing to say is that the two things are written for different audiences. The blurb is for your potential customers – the people who will ‘buy your book’ in the sense of ‘buying a copy to read on the train’. It’s the thing that goes on the back cover, on Amazon, on Goodreads. It’s the thing that makes Janice, browsing Amazon in her lunch break, think, ‘Ooh, I fancy reading this one’.

The synopsis, on the other hand, is for the people who will ‘buy your book’ in the sense of ‘buying your manuscript; buying “the concept” of your book’ – the agent, the publisher, the commissioning editor. Those people don’t have the time to read the whole manuscript, but they want to know what it says. So the synopsis is your ‘Executive Summary’. It’s the thing you send with your enquiry/cover letter when you’re trying to convince an industry professional that your manuscript has something interesting to say.

Getting the distinction wrong – putting a synopsis where the blurb should be, or sending a 100-word blurb to an agent who specifically asked you for a synopsis – can mark you out as an amateur and can damage your sales, either directly or indirectly. Directly, because if a customer browsing a bookshop has just read the whole plot of your thriller and now knows who killed Sally, then what incentive is there for them to buy the book? And indirectly, because if an agent or publisher thinks you can’t follow a simple instruction like ‘send me a synopsis of your book’, then they’re unlikely to take your cause further, however great your book is. Remember: none of these people have read your manuscript. They don’t know about that amazing sensory description of a cooked breakfast on page 82, or Nigel’s musing about the meaning of life in Chapter 12. And if you don’t get this right, chances are they never will.

B is for Blurb and Beginnings and Back Cover

The blurb sells your book. It’s an advert, and it tells you the premise of the story – in other words, how it begins. It tells the reader who the book’s main character is, and what problem they have that drives the story. It doesn’t include the ending, the twist on page 163, or any major plot points beyond the ones you’d find in the first quarter or so of the book. It may well be written to include one or more questions that provide ‘cliffhangers’, making your potential readers want to know more. (The synopsis, as we will see, provides all the answers to those questions.) What’s your genre? Read some blurbs online for the same kind of book. Amazon is helpfully organised to facilitate just such an exercise! Notice how the language is structured. Are there more questions than answers? How much detail does the blurb give away about the plot? Does it, in short, leave you wanting to know more?

A blurb should be only about 100–200 words long; make all of them count! This might be the only chance you get to make a sale to this particular reader, so you need to hook them straight away. Attention spans these days are short, and there are lots of other things competing for your customers’ focus, whether in a physical bookshop or online. They’re reading lots of other blurbs in that bookshop, and chances are they won’t buy more than one or two of the books. Remember, too, that from a practical point of view, there’s a lot of other stuff – barcode, ISBN, that lovely moody author photo your friend took – that needs space on the back cover (this is obviously particularly important if you’re intending to produce print copies of your book).

S is for Synopsis and Summary and Spoiler Alert

The synopsis summarises the key points of your book’s main plot for an agent or publisher who won’t have time to read your whole manuscript due to the enormous pile of similar manuscripts on and around their desk. Unlike the blurb, it should be written in straightforward, non-sensational (i.e. not ‘salesy’) language. It should follow the general tone of the book – if your novel is a heavyweight political thriller, this is not the place for toilet gags. It should be longer than the blurb, but not too long. Don’t write more than 500–800 words. If you’re submitting to a particular agent or publisher, though, do check what their particular requirements are; this is not necessarily the time for a one-size-fits-all approach, and not following the rules can be an express route straight to the agent’s bin.

SPOILER ALERT! – or at least, there should be. The synopsis should contain all the spoilers. The person reading it wants to know if your book is commercially viable – and that’s all they want to know. They’re not interested in reading the book later for entertainment; they want to know that you’ve got a solid plot with an interesting premise, plenty of surprises, and a sound, satisfying conclusion. And you need to be able to convince them of all that within the ten minutes or so that they have to consider you as a possible Next Big Thing who will make money for their publishing house. It is, as I said, the Executive Summary for the Busy And Important People.

There are other advantages to writing a good synopsis. It can be a great way to gain an authorial overview of your book and its story arc – are there points where the plot is flagging a bit? Are there two or three chapters that you find yourself not including in the synopsis because nothing much happens? Might it be worth revisiting those chapters to see if you really need them in the book at all? It might also be a way of spotting inconsistencies or things that are missing – sometimes taking a ‘big picture’ approach to your work can be invaluable, getting you out of the trees so you can clearly see the wood.

Let’s Look at an Example

Here’s the Amazon blurb for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

‘I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.’

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon whom her future hangs.

And now here’s a synopsis (SPOILER ALERT!) of the same book (adapted from Wikipedia):

After a staged attack that killed the President and most of Congress, a radical political/religious group launched a revolution in the United States, forming the Republic of Gilead. The new regime has taken some Old Testament ideas, and reorganised society using a militarized, hierarchical model. Human rights, especially those of women, are limited; women are not allowed to read, write, own property or handle money, and they are deprived of control over their own reproductive functions.

The central character is a woman the regime has named Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’ – Fred being the name of the head of the household where she has been sent to live), who narrates the story. She is one of only a few fertile women remaining; these women are known as “Handmaids” based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. All women in Gilead are arranged in social castes and follow a strict dress code which denotes their position; there are Commanders’ Wives, Handmaids, Aunts (who ‘train’ the Handmaids), Marthas (cooks and maids), and so on.

Offred details her life, starting with her third assignment as a Handmaid. Interspersed with her narratives of her present-day experiences are flashbacks of her life before and during the revolution, including her failed attempt to escape to Canada with her husband, her indoctrination into life as a Handmaid, and the successful escape of her friend Moira. At her new home, she is treated poorly by the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, a former Christian media personality who supported women’s subordination well before Gilead was established. Offred is expected to participate regularly in the “Ceremony”, a euphemistic term for forced sexual intercourse with the Commander which takes place in the presence of his wife and is intended to produce a pregnancy.

Offred is surprised one day when the Commander asks to see her; they begin an illegal relationship, playing Scrabble regularly (in defiance of the ban on women reading), and Offred is allowed to ask favours of him. He gives her lingerie and takes her to a government-run brothel, Jezebel’s. Offred finds Moira there, her will broken, and learns from her that anyone found breaking the law is sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste, or can work at Jezebel’s as an alternative.

Offred’s shopping partner, Ofglen, tells her about the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow the regime. Meanwhile, Serena begins to suspect that the Commander is infertile, and arranges for Offred to begin a covert relationship with the Commander’s personal servant, Nick. After their initial sexual encounter, Offred and Nick begin to meet regularly and Offred shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him.

Serena finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander, which causes Offred herself to contemplate suicide.

Offred tells Nick that she thinks she is pregnant. Shortly afterwards, men arrive at the house wearing the uniform of the secret police (“the Eyes”), to take her away. As she is led to their van, Nick tells her to trust him and go with them, but it is unclear whether the men are Eyes, or members of the Mayday resistance; Offred cannot be certain whether Nick is helping her or betraying her. Ultimately, she enters the van, her future uncertain.

Notice how different they are – and not only in length! The blurb is a ‘sales pitch’ that doesn’t give much away; the synopsis is a ‘factual’ summary of the whole story. The blurb tells you how it begins; the synopsis also tells you how it ends. Note, too, the similarities: both are written in the present tense, both include the name of the protagonist, both give a general sense of what genre the book belongs in, both match the general style of the book, and both (hopefully) provoke the reader’s interest in the book. But note that if you were to find that long synopsis on the back cover, you almost certainly wouldn’t buy the book. What would be the point? You already know what happens!

Putting It into Practice

So that’s a look at the blurb and the synopsis. Let’s end by writing one of each for this article.


Do you know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis? When are spoilers a good thing, and why should you think carefully before including your best toilet gag?


In the first part, Alison gives us a general introduction to the terms ‘blurb’ and ‘synopsis’ and outlines how and where each should be used in the production and marketing of a book. She provides some tips for writing each type of piece effectively, and offers a worked example, comparing the blurb and a synopsis for The Handmaid’s Tale. Finally, she includes a blurb and a synopsis for the article itself.

This is getting a bit too meta. I’m stopping right here.

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How to Use Tracked Changes in Microsoft Word

How to Use Tracked Changes in Microsoft Word

Like most editors, I return my clients’ edited documents in Word format with Tracked Changes. This allows you to see exactly what I’ve done; it’s vital that you have the opportunity to think about each suggested change and consider whether it works for you. It’s your work, after all, and you should always have the final say!

Viewing Changes

When you receive the edited file, if there are only a few changes, I’d recommend looking at it in ‘All Markup’ view. Go into the Review tab and select ‘All Markup’ from the dropdown menu. All the changes will be marked up – suggested deletions will have a line through them, suggested insertions will be underlined, and text that’s been moved will have a double underline. Comments will be displayed in the margin.

Using All Markup is the easiest way for you to see all the changes at a glance, and to see the scale of the task that lies ahead – but if there are more than a couple of changes per paragraph, it doesn’t always make for an easy reading experience and it’s easy to miss things like missing spaces or punctuation. In that scenario, Simple Markup view is your friend. All the changes are still there, and the comments remain visible in the margin, but the changes are hidden so that you can assess the overall flow better without being distracted by all that red markup. It’s also much easier to check that, for example, there’s a space before each sentence, and that you don’t have any duplicated punctuation marks.

Accepting and Rejecting Changes

As you’re going through the revision process, you can accept or reject each change individually in one of two ways. Firstly, try right-clicking on one of the changes. You’ll get a context-specific popup menu that includes options to ‘Accept Deletion’ or ‘Reject Deletion’. Select one of those options, and Word will either permanently delete that pesky ‘that’ or will revert to your original. In both cases, it will remove the tracking for that change.

Alternatively, you can head up into the Review tab in the top toolbar and accept or reject changes from there. To accept a change, select it and then click on Accept. You’ll see a range of options. Be aware that selecting ‘Accept All Changes’ does exactly that, and you will lose all the tracking; your document will now be the same as if your editor had just changed it all without giving you a say! But if there are lots of changes and you’re happy with most of them, then ‘Accept All’ can be a quicker option than accepting each one individually. Just go through the document rejecting anything you don’t want to implement, then click ‘Accept All’ at the end for everything else.

To reject a change, the process is similar. Be careful not to choose ‘Reject All Changes’ by mistake – thereby undoing hours of painstaking editorial graft – but if you do, Ctrl+Z should restore them!

Remember: the editor is on your side. They will almost certainly have made some changes that should be ‘set in stone’ – for example, correcting misspellings, typos and grammatical glitches – but as for the rest, it’s up to you. If your editor has made other suggestions, it’s because he or she believes they will enhance your work, either technically or artistically, but you always have the final say. Your writing is just that – yours!

To download an illustrated pdf copy of this guide, click here.

Working with an editor: Part two

In the last blog, we looked at the things an indie author could and should expect from their freelance editor. This time, we’ll swap it around and find out what the editor needs in return. These are the things that will make your working relationship a pleasure, and that editors think are vital to the ultimate success of your project.

What do editors need from authors?

An understanding of what you’re asking for: a lot of authors think that a ‘proofread’ is a catch-all term for any kind of editing, but to a professional editor (or anyone else in the publishing industry, for that matter) a proofread is a very specific thing, and it happens very late in the process of producing a book. A proofread, strictly speaking, is a final check for small typos, layout problems, pictures with incorrect captions … that kind of thing. It’s not a chance to check for plot holes, or to do any restructuring of sentences beyond the odd small tweak. Editors call those things ‘developmental editing’ and ‘structural editing’, ‘line editing’ and ‘copy editing’.

All editors have stories about authors who asked for a proofread when what their work really needed was a major structural overhaul, but don’t worry – we know the terminology can be confusing. We often can’t even agree amongst ourselves what each term means.

But if you haven’t worked with an editor before (and often even if you have), the chances are that what you need isn’t a proofread, in the way that your editor understands it. What you need is a copyedit, or a line edit, or even a structural/developmental edit if your work is in an earlier draft stage. You can read more about the levels of editing here.

A draft that is ready for editing: don’t send your first scribblings to an editor and expect a finished product by return email. An editor is not a miracle worker. It’s also a waste of your time and money to send work to an editor for a ‘proofread’ when what it actually needs is something much more in-depth. Tools like Grammarly are often derided in the editing community – and it’s true that they can’t replace the improvements you’ll get by having a real-life human being look at your work – but it’s definitely worth using them to catch the more obvious errors before sending your material for professional editing (especially if your editor charges by the hour!). The more time your editor can spend enhancing the flavour of your writing without being distracted every time you spell ‘their’ as ‘thier’, the better. That’s a more efficient use of everyone’s time and money. And Grammarly is free.

Documents in a user-friendly format: most editors prefer to work in MS Word, which is regarded as the industry standard for submitting manuscripts to publishers. Most of us can also work with PDFs and Google Docs, but many editors prefer not to. Word has significantly more power; most of us are expert users and we’ve seen bits of its menus its own mother never knew about. And we have special editing plug-ins that make our lives easier and make our output better. So if you’re in the habit of writing on your phone, or scribbling bits of your magnum opus on the backs of envelopes, please convert them into something useable before expecting your editor to start work. If you can’t afford Word, then you probably can’t afford an editor, but don’t forget that free alternatives like OpenOffice and LibreOffice are available which do pretty much the same job and are compatible with Word.

Communication and responsiveness: you’re both great at words, and you should be using them. This is as true for the author as it is for the editor; the editor needs you to answer those queries, to be clear about your deadlines, and to articulate what it is that you want. If you don’t transmit your requirements to your editor, don’t be surprised if what comes back to you isn’t what you were expecting. Very few of us have psychic abilities.

An understanding of the timescales: editing a novel isn’t just a question of running it through the spellchecker and making sure it’s all in 12-point Times New Roman. A professional editor will take several weeks to copy-edit a book of any substantial length. Many of us agree that it’s not possible to concentrate on a manuscript for more than five or six hours in a single day – and we have businesses to run, too. We need to spend time on marketing, accounting, project management, training, networking, updating Windows (again), preparing sample edits for prospective clients, shouting at the printer, and writing blog posts. Sometimes we need to do laundry, too.

Punctuality, or flexibility: If your editor is a freelancer – and even if they’re not – don’t imagine for a minute that they’re just sitting around waiting for your call. They’re trying to make a living. That almost certainly means they have multiple projects on the go at any one time, and they won’t all be for indie authors. They’ve probably squeezed your book in between a copyedit for a corporate client and a proofread for a popular publisher. Those things have tight deadlines. So it’s particularly important that you stick to the agreed schedule wherever possible. If you submit your manuscript late, don’t be surprised if your editor has pushed you down the queue in favour of working on the next project on their list. I’m sorry to break it to you like this, but ours is not a monogamous relationship.

An understanding that an editor has a living to make: most editors won’t work for free beyond the odd quick email. If you want to spend an hour on the phone discussing a plot point, that’s fine, and your editor will usually be happy to accommodate it, but – unless you have a contract that states this kind of thing is included – don’t be surprised when their invoice includes a charge for the time. If you want your editor to write your synopsis or your query letter, expect to be charged for it. (And while we’re on the subject, please pay that invoice on time. We really, really don’t want to have to chase you for money, because most of us are way too introverted for that kind of stuff. Have a heart.)


We understand that a lot of writers don’t have a lot of spare cash to spend – but really, truly: editing is an important investment, and you really do get what you pay for. In order to get the most out of your working relationship, and to guarantee an end product that’s as good as it can be, then it’s vital that you know how to use your editor to best effect. I hope these two posts have helped to set you on the right path.

Ready to work with an editor now? Click here.

Working with an editor: Part one

If the writing and editing forums I frequent on Facebook are any guide, the relationship between an indie author and their freelance editor can be fraught with difficulty. And it’s a two-way street. Authors complain about editors destroying their vision. Editors complain about authors not knowing what they’re asking for.

In this pair of blog posts, I’ll be examining how we can best make that author–editor relationship work, because it’s critical to the success of a project. If the relationship is a marriage, the book it produces is its precious offspring. And you want your book to be the bright, happy, beautiful kid who’s friends with all the cool crowd at school, not … the other one. Don’t you?

What should an author expect from an editor?

Technical competence: It should go without saying, but one of the main reasons you’re employing an editor is that they have an advanced understanding of the technicalities of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting. Your brain might be wonderfully creative, but perhaps you’re not so hot on the differences between their and they’re and there, or where the comma goes in relation to the speech marks. So your editor, first and foremost, should be great at that stuff.

(As a side note: even professional editors make typos. It’s not necessarily a cause for alarm if there’s a spelling mistake in that quick email they dashed off at 6am before they took the kids to school; they probably just needed a coffee, or their other glasses. Editing forums on social media are full of sorry tales from great, accomplished editors about signing off emails with ‘best retards’ or describing themselves as ediots. One editor confessed to writing ‘thanks for contacting me about shit’ instead of ‘thanks for contacting me about this’ and I regularly mistype my own surname – which is unfortunate because it comes out as a word for a female dog which many people regard as highly derogatory. For more on this topic, see here.

Specialist knowledge: Editors working in specialised fields should have at least some knowledge of them; this applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t edit complex scientific material well without having at least a basic grasp of the terminology and conventions that apply to that area. You might think that anyone can edit fiction, but it’s a pretty good idea for a novel editor to understand the basics of how stories work. And, if they’re working in a particular genre – high fantasy, say – then it’s also a good idea for them to understand the expectations of that genre’s readership. Just as you wouldn’t expect Lee Child to suddenly write a novel about a fairy princess falling in love with a dragon, many fiction editors limit themselves to a particular genre or genres, because they know their subject. And that makes them useful people for an indie author to know.

Communication: Freelance editors are busy people (or at least, we hope to be) but it’s poor practice to just take the manuscript and run. Failing to communicate during the process – particularly during a long project – is unhelpful and can leave you feeling like someone whose close relative was wheeled into the operating theatre eighteen hours ago for a tonsillectomy and hasn’t yet emerged. A good editor will acknowledge receipt of your manuscript, will keep you up to date with progress, will answer your questions, and will contact you with any queries they have rather than just making assumptions. (Don’t make me say that management-speak thing about what we do when we assume.)

A fair price: authors have a right to expect that the editor will charge them a fair price for the type and amount of work undertaken – but ‘fair’ isn’t necessarily ‘cheap’. Some types of editing are more expensive than others, but they all require a high level of skill and concentration. Editors are professionals, with training and qualifications, and you should expect to pay for their expertise. Sure, you can find ‘editors’ working for a dollar an hour on several popular freelancer sites, but those people aren’t, by and large, the professionals. More often than not, they’re just people who know how to use Grammarly. You can do that yourself for free, and using Grammarly is not the same as editing. Whisper it quietly: sometimes, Grammarly is wrong.

The editor should tell you before they start work what their estimate or quote covers, and how it’s calculated. Are they going to charge you by the hour or by the word, or have they set a fixed price for the whole job? Do they need a deposit to book a slot for your project (many do)? Will they expect payment of the full amount before releasing the work to you? Will they allow you to pay in instalments? How do they accept payment?

Suggested minimum rates for different types of professional editing are available on the SfEP (UK) and EFA (US) websites.

A written contract / terms and conditions: many freelance editors use these to define the terms of a project, so don’t be surprised if yours asks you to agree to a contract or other documentation. This is for your protection and theirs, and they’re not trying to trick you – they’re just making sure that both sides know what has been agreed so there are no nasty surprises later. This leads us on to …

The kind of edit you expected: many editors offer a sample edit (sometimes free, sometimes not) so that both sides know what to expect. The sample edit means that the editor can see what shape your work is in and, if necessary, suggest a different kind of editing from the one you requested. It may even be that they decide they’re not a good fit for the project once they’ve seen what it needs (this is more common than you might think – most editors will not take on a job that they don’t think they’re suited to, and many will make efforts to find you another, more appropriate, editor).

Remember, too, that even editors can’t always agree on what the various terms mean. One person’s ‘copy-edit’ is another’s ‘line-edit’ is someone else’s ‘proofread’. Whatever terminology they use, if the editor hasn’t done a sample to show you what to expect, then they should be very clear at the outset about what they will and will not be doing.

Once the project parameters have been agreed, either with or without a sample edit, the editor has no business rewriting sentences or suggesting alterations to the plot if all that was requested was a proofread, and shouldn’t be wasting your time and money nit-picking about comma placement if you asked for a developmental edit to refine the big-picture story structure.

Homework: The editing process is more of a conversation than a lecture. You can expect your editor to return your document with tracked changes, suggestions and comments, and it’s up to you to decide what to do with them. That, I’m afraid, means more work for you. You’re not obliged to accept any of the suggestions or changes, of course – it’s your book, and always will be – but your editor is expecting you to go through them and make some revisions.

Depending on the stage at which you entered the process, it’s likely that your manuscript will need more than one round of editing. If you employed a developmental editor to help the flow of your story and suggest a way out of that problematic tight corner in Chapter Nine, then they won’t be dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s at the same time. (Yes, I know Word does that automatically. You know what I mean.) No: they will return the manuscript for you to revise, and they will expect you to send it to a copy editor – who may or may not be the same person – when it’s done. And the copy editor may well expect you to have a further round of proofreading before publication.

Safe keeping of your files: A good editor will have multiple backup systems in place – which may include external and cloud storage as well as storage on their computer. They should not work on the original file you send them, but will make a working copy. That way, they will always have the original to return to if something goes wrong. Their systems should be adequately protected against software glitches, malware and viruses, too. None of this is to say, of course, that you shouldn’t be taking care of your own files too. Your editor is not your mum. Tidy your own bedroom.

In the next part, we’ll flip things around to look at what editors need from authors.

Looking for an editor?

How Long Have I Got, Doc?

A brief utility post.

I’m gradually realising that, as a freelance editor, I still need some of the geeky tech skills I used in my former life as a scientist. I thought life outside the NHS would be all wafting about being creative, with lots of scarves and mindfulness and dangly earrings, but it turns out I still need to know my way around a spreadsheet.

Which leads me to this.

One of the things I’ve found myself needing to do, particularly as a relative newcomer, is to estimate the amount of time I’ll need to complete an ongoing project. This helps me to keep authors updated with when they can expect to hear back from me, and helps me to know when (or if) I can squeeze in that oh-so-tempting offer from the freelancing website (you know the one).

And I’d hazard a guess that some other editors need to do this, too. So, because editors are a friendly and helpful bunch, I’ve decided to share the spreadsheet I made for just this kind of calculation. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but give me a yell from the Comments form if you need any help.


Project time calculator blank