Ask the Editor: First Chapters
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at how a book's opening chapter can determine its fate—for better or for worse.Dear Editor: Do acquiring editors really only read the first chapters of manuscripts? –Leonard
Sometimes. Look at it this way: if you pick up a book, skim the first chapter, and hate it or find it boring, are you going to buy it? Probably not. Book editors feel the same way. They are busy and often have piles of unread manuscripts. Even when they get a manuscript from a top literary agent, if the book doesn’t grab them, they’ll reject it.
What’s the lesson here? Pay close attention to your opening—your first sentence, paragraph, chapter. With fiction, you want your opening paragraph to entice readers, surprise them, scare them, or make them feel something. With nonfiction, tell your reader what your book is about, why it’s different, what’s in it for them, and maybe why you wrote it.
Keep in mind “the beauty of brevity,” which E.B. White emphasizes, and try to keep your prose, clear, clean, and accurate. “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,” says William Strunk Jr. in The Elements of Style. “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.”
This advice applies to all writers. “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne. And putting in the hard work is always worth it, in my experience. Some things never change.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.
If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.