—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)—
Betty Kelly Sargent, BookWorks founder, and veteran editor explains why your first chapter may be the only chance you get to hook an acquiring editor...and your reader, in this month's answer to a reader's question.
Is it true that most in-house, acquiring editors only read the first chapter of the manuscripts they are considering for publication, if that?
Sometimes. Look at it this way. If you pick up a novel or a nonfiction book at your local bookstore, skim the first chapter and hate it, or find it boring, are you going to buy that book? Probably not. Book editors feel the same way. They are very busy people and often have piles of unread manuscripts stacked up in their office. Even when they receive a manuscript from a top literary agent, if the material doesn’t grab them quickly, at least by the end of the first chapter, chances are they will reject it.
First Chapter = First Impression = Your Hook
What’s the lesson here for all writers? It’s simple. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, pay close attention to your opening—your first sentence, your first paragraphs, your first chapter. With fiction, you want your opening paragraph to entice your readers, surprise them, scare them or make them laugh, make them feel something right away. With nonfiction, tell your reader what your book is about, why it is different from other books on this subject, what’s in it for the reader and maybe even why you decided to write it. Keep in mind “the beauty of brevity,” which E.B.White emphasizes, and try to keep your prose, clear, clean and accurate.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell,” says William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style.
Those words are as true today as they were when he first wrote them in 1919.
Making It Appear Easy Is Hard Work
This advice applies to all writers—whether self-publishing or looking for a trade publisher. “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” said Nathanial Hawthorne. And putting in the hard work is always worth it, in my experience. Some things never change.
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