Perfecting Your First Page: 3 Tasks or Exercises

Delacroix, Faust Trying to Seduce Margarete (detail)

Delacroix, Faust Trying to Seduce Margarete (detail)

Over the weekend, I was a speaker at the Missouri Writers Guild conference (a terrific group of people and an impeccably run event). One of my sessions focused on evaluating the first page of your novel or memoir manuscript.

Here are 3 of the best exercises or tasks you might undertake when thinking about your first page and how you can improve it before sending it to agents or editors.

  1. What is the absolute latest moment in the manuscript you can begin your story, and still not leave out anything that’s critical to the story problem? Most manuscripts I read should really start somewhere between page 5 and page 30. Be ruthless in evaluating your opening—have you dawdled in revealing the story problem? It ought to be seeded on page 1.
  2. What details do NOT relate to the story problem or the protagonist? We rarely need the complete biography of your main character on the first page. Let those details emerge as the story unfolds. Don’t share the everyday, mundane details we could guess. Share the most unique, special, distinctive details—the ones that really matter to the story and character from the start. The No. 1 mistake for first pages is overwriting—or working too hard at “painting a picture.” If you load up on every single detail, how am I supposed to know which ones are important? Be selective. Be artful.
  3. Have you shown or described something that really ought to be quickly summarized (or “told”)? Sometimes writers go into flowery description about something that should be flat-out stated. Admittedly, this is an issue that will remain relevant on every single page of your book. Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses—one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” When it comes to impatient editors and agents, favor brevity and artful omission in your opening pages.

Bonus tip: Highlight every adjective, adverb, and modifying phrase. Do you need them all? Start pruning!

If you enjoyed this advice, you can check out my basic slide presentation on evaluating your first page. (If the slideshow doesn’t appear below, click here.)

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  1. When I sent my manuscript off to an editor, I got back the typical red ink markings on the first few pages. But at the beginning of the third scene (about 10 pages in), I had a HUGE note that said, “I strongly recommend you start the story here!” 

    Like most writers, I’d sweated blood over those pages. It was some of my “best writing.” But I followed her advice. Hopefully, the readers of this post will follow yours (good, as usual). Kudos, Jane.

  2. I’m in the last stages of editing my first book. My editor has been telling me the same kinds of things, but I’m a checklist person. These three steps are so helpful!

  3. Jane,
    Excellent advice. I would add if you don’t have the resources to hire a book editor to review your MS at least hire one to look at the first 50 pages.

  4. Thank you for sharing, Jane – especially the tip about highlighting adjectives and adverbs. My editor has really been helping me to scale back, and this advice is so valuable. Hope to see you in Muncie in July!

  5. Great advice, Jane. I just had the first five chapters of memoir collaboration cut by the publisher. I had to go back and sprinkle information crucial to the story, write new scenes, remove others. 

    Bottom line: I could have saved loads of time if I had started in the right place. But the revisions were worthwhile because with each round of edits, I (along with @dzmalone:twitter ) pruned adjectives, adverbs, and those pesky modifying phrases.

    • LOL! 

      Well, if you ever happen upon a slush pile and start reading, I think you’ll come to understand the bonus tip much better.

      Or, in other words: Everything in moderation.

    • “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

  6. Jane,
    I really appreciate these very succinct , no-nonsense guidelines for making the first page work of a manuscript work. Your statement about  how”action needs to be in context, be as grounded as possible in a character that the reader is already in love with” really resonated with me (action with character) as did the “memoir red flags.” Wow, the only way to achieve that is by accepting that “writing is rewriting.” This is a post I’ll bookmark to use as a guideline for  deciding where  and how I will step into my memoir. Thank you for a great post!

  7. Jane, I’m so glad you shared this here.  I attended your early a.m. session, but had to miss this one.  Now I have info on both!  It was great meeting you over the weekend.  The conference was so inspiring thanks to you and the other speakers. 

  8. Your workshop was incredibly helpful and I can’t wait to use your advice on my own manuscript. Thank you!

  9. Excellent advice, as ever.  I tend to be wordy and descriptive, but I’m learning, thanks to several well-timed posts like this one, that “tell” isn’t necessarily a four-letter-word.  You just have to be careful about what you tell :)

  10. Hi Jane,
    Thanks for the advice. A couple of questions though.This post seems directed mostly toward fiction writers. My book is self help. Do the same three tips apply.

    The second question is on your third point. My writing coach used to really hammer us to “show” not “tell.” Where does one find the balance especially in a non-fiction book?


    • Indeed! It mostly applies to narrative works (either fictional or not). 

      Instructional/how-to books—which self-help would fall under—have a whole host of different considerations. In my opinion, they don’t need to be “artfully” written, just written well enough to convey information/inspiration.

      “Show, don’t tell” is a rule that’s gotten out of control—and it creates a lot of bad writing. However, again, I don’t think it applies with self-help. Any kind of instruction book needs to be direct—just as this blog post is direct. Use examples/anecdotes to show what you mean when needed.

      •  Thanks Jane. Your advice is highly valued and it is in sync with what my gut was telling me. I appreciate your reply.

  11. Some great thoughts here Jane, thanks for this. Your slide show was also helpful, though… it would have been nice to hear your lovely voice along side it! 

  12. This advice came with perfect timing for me, as pretty much all of your tips do — I think that’s always so amazing. Now, I’m starting to count the adverbs and adjectives. haha But seriously, this is great advice. It will be a big help to me.

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  14. Thanks again, Jane. I appreciated your review of my first page at the conference. The prologue is now history and the first two pages are pared down to one.

    It’s funny how things like your three tasks seem perfectly clear when you hear about them, but totally baffling in application. Fingers crossed that I “got it” this time!

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  16. LOVE–and HATE–task number one because I’ve had to re-do and re-do and re-do for that exact reason. But you’re spot on – I’d put all the “necessary” back story in the first 5 pages rather than threading it throughout the tale. Still struggle with this on every new manuscript – argh.

  17. Jane, thanks for this.  I am on my way to a workshop on openings tomorrow — with 14 fellow workshopper manuscripts to comment on beforehand — so reading this was the perfect starter for my morning. 

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