Editing the First Ten Pages

Every time I take on a new client for copy/line edits or proofing, I’ll ask to see the first ten pages of the work in discussion. The deal I make is that I’ll do those ten pages free—usually in 24 hours—and return them to the author with info about moving ahead. This arrangement works to the benefit of both the author and the editor. It gives me a chance to get a look at what we’re talking about in terms of work needed on my end, and it gives the author a chance to decide if the kinds of comments and edits I make in those ten pages will be useful to them, or if they were looking for something else.

New writers (or those who haven’t worked with an editor before) sometimes ask what I’m looking for when I approach a new client’s work, so I thought I’d give you a quick inside view. Reading over this quick list can also be a way for writers to approach their own work, since the cleaner a manuscript is at the outset, the better chances of a quick editing pass (and potentially a single pass versus two or three!)

1. Does anything happen?

Without stepping on Becca’s toes on the content-editing side, I can’t help but read work with an eye toward the story itself. And if nothing happens in those first pages, I won’t be able to edit the book. I could, of course, but it wouldn’t be doing the author any favors.

If the first ten pages are all inner monologue, or backstory, or a description of the heroine waking up and getting ready for work, then I already know the story isn’t ready for a line-level edit. It needs a revision, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to edit it, take the client’s money, and return it without a fair assessment. In the market today, readers have too many great books to choose from, and they won’t stick with one that doesn’t grab them immediately. Also consider that Amazon will preview the first ten pages or so—these are your selling pages. They should potentially be the most exciting and compelling in your entire manuscript.

So ask yourself – does anything happen in my first ten pages to show the reader what the story will be about? Is the hook presented to draw the reader in and pull them forward? Is the story problem apparent, or at least being hinted at? Does the inciting incident occur in this span of words?

2. Does every sentence start with the same word or in the same format?

All writers have their crutches. My characters all tend to nod a lot. It’s my thing, and I spend a ton of time editing out all the inane nodding after the first draft. Some crutches are in the category of sentence structure.

A lot of us fall into the trap of using “I” to begin every sentence in a first-person POV narrative, or “she/he” in third-person POV. Sometimes it’s necessary. Don’t do it if it isn’t.

Others of us begin a lot of sentences with “ing” verbs (or present participles). For example: “Thinking about Tom, Sarah ran right into a wall.” Try: “Sarah ran right into a wall because she was thinking about Tom.”

That’s actually a terrible example, but the point is that the simplest way to say something is often the best.

Try to vary your sentence structure in length and rhythm, too – this helps with cadence and makes the entire thing more fun and interesting to read.

3. Do you overuse “that” or “just”?

Most of us do. Do a quick search for those two words and strike them wherever you can.

But don’t go overboard. I spend a good amount of time adding “that” into sentences because evidently writers have been over warned about using “that”… sometimes we need it!

4. Punctuation goes inside the quotes. Always.

5. How adverbby are you?

Do all your characters do things “distractedly” or “sadly” or “aggressively?” Adverbs can be really helpful, and I’m not in agreement with Stephen King about never using them (he uses them, too, by the way.) Just as I don’t believe you should strike any one item forever from your diet (unless you’ve been eating a lot of paint chips or something), I don’t think we should ban a certain type of word from our vocabulary. Use all the tools available, but learn to use them well.

6. It’s and its

It only gets the apostrophe if it’s short for “it is”… easy peasy.

7. Are you abusing the poor little ellipsis?

I’m totally guilty of this one, but the ellipsis (this guy à …) should be used sparingly. The most common reason to use an ellipsis is to show an omission in a quote. That is rarely the way fiction authors use these, though. We often use them where a comma would suffice (for a pause) or where we might better have an em dash, of which I am a big fan—like this, see? The ellipsis can be used to show someone trailing off in dialogue, “Like if I was saying something but…”

I could really go on and on, but this is a good amount to begin with! I don’t advocate anyone being the final eyes on their own books, but you can get a lot of self-editing done ahead, ensure that your copyedit or proofread goes quickly and smoothly when the time comes!

Curious about your own writing crutches or think you might be ready for an edit? You’re welcome to send me your first ten pages to us at any time to see if we’d work well together! Email them to me at Nancy at evidentink dot com!

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