On Judging by the First Few Pages

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I recently got a comment on my YouTube channel complaining about how unfair it was that literary agents don't read the full manuscript of every query they receive. The commenter felt agents were missing out on loads of great manuscripts that had a lackluster query or opening and thought it was up to the agent to read the whole manuscript before judging.

I schooled said commenter on an agent's role, but it did get me thinking about all the things you learn from just the first couple pages of a manuscript.

When I dive into a manuscript as a freelance editor, I find that more times than not, I can note what universal writing issues are present within the first five to ten pages. Voice, wordiness, dialogue issues, telling instead of showing, filtering, over reliance on backstory, etc. are all pretty easy to spot early in a manuscript. And whatever writing problems are present on page one or five 99.9% of the time are present throughout the entire manuscript.

Figuring out most story issues—that is, plot, character, or world building problems—often require digging a little deeper and reading more, but it's pretty easy to tell, based off the quality of someone's writing in the first few pages, whether the manuscript is written by a brand new writer who still needs honing, or whether it's written by someone skilled enough to move on to the next step.

In other words, no, agents really don't need to read that much to determine whether a manuscript isn't going to be a good fit for them.

Granted, if the writing is good but the story has problems, that's going to take a longer sample to figure out, more times than not. But the truth is, a lot of manuscripts can be easily eliminated off the first couple pages simply because the writer's skill level isn't there yet, which is easy to determine based off a short sample.

And think about it: when debating whether or not to read a book, readers often open the book up and sample the first couple pages. This tells them whether the voice works for them or whether the initial plot is intriguing enough to catch their eye. Readers don't read an entire book in the bookstore while deciding whether or not to get it—that would take too long and make it impossible to sample multiple books in one day.

Judging a book by the first few pages may sound a little harsh, but the truth is, there's so much you can glean from the first couple pages. Which is why writers often emphasize the importance of making those first couple pages really shine—after all, you don't want to give your reader a reason to say no.

Do you judge books by the first couple pages?

Twitter-sized bite:
Author & freelance editor @Ava_Jae talks why judging a book by the first few pages works. (Click to tweet)

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