On the Importance of Page One

(3 min. read)

beautiful journalist looks typewriter

Page One challenge

Whenever I happen to read my students’ essays and theses, I seldom need more than a couple of minutes to make an opinion about the quality of their work: evaluation of research always involves the same sequence of steps–

  • read the title to pick out the most significant words (keywords) in it and to learn about the subject of the research paper;
  • study the Contents page, which is supposed to outline the general logic of the research;
  • look through the introduction really quickly, to see how the author identifies the goal, the tasks and the main methodology of the research; and
  • take a quick look at the section called ‘Conclusion’.

If I see some red flags in these parts of the thesis, I open the text at a random page and read a couple of random sentences: this gives me understanding of the author’s level of professionalism, awareness of the ‘rules’ of academic writing, and the amount of effort put into the writing of this thesis. After reading of a few sentences, I can easily say whether the author did a thorough, diligent work of writing or not. Quite often, when the writing style is complex and even unclear, it reveals quite the opposite of professionalism. This is why the best works of science are written in such a language that even an 8-year-old can understand what the talk is about in the research.

Before I started writing fiction, I thought that similar evaluation of fiction manuscript swould be impossible, because fiction writing is such a creative process and it is always absolutely unique. Now, when I have finished a few works of fiction, I realize (and strongly support) the fact that evaluation of a fiction manuscript by editors and agents is also done in a similar way, by means of applying a certain sequence of actions which serve as bench mark measurements to identify the level of the author’s professionalism and talent.

Johannes_Vermeer_The_Geographer

Johannes Vermeer. The Geographer. 1668.

 Every evaluation involves applying some system of measurements to the object of evaluation; even such thing as talent of a master in any form of art can (and should) be measured.

This is what Carly Watters, a literary agent, writes in her blog about reading manuscripts of fiction authors:

“I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.”

Carly gives us her measurement criteria: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice and the general impression of the author’s writing style which she calls writing talent. I am very thankful to Carly for sharing this with us. Isn’t it great to know how your first page will be assessed by a professional?

But how can we measure talent? I kept asking myself this question until I have done evaluation of dozens of graduate students’ thesis. The answer is quite simple: the talent of a scientist is measured by the readers’ ability to understand and follow his/her writing.  During life, with lots of reading and learning experiences, every person develops a certain pattern (stereotype) of mental strategies which help us understand each other’s way of thinking. The professionalism (and also the talent) of a scientist is his/her ability to use commonly accepted patterns to explain their unique ideas in a simple and attractive way.  I think the evaluation of a fiction writer’s talent is done similarly: if the narration ‘sounds’ attractive, realistic, exciting and quite simple to digest, the manuscript is good and is worth reading. The very first page will inevitably reveal this.

In her article, Carly Watters suggests a few tips to attract the reader to your manuscript from the very first page:

  • Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us;
  • Learn what “start with action” really means;
  • Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious;
  • Be wary of information dumps;
  • Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis; and
  • Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book.

You can look up her explanations about each tip in her article. The bottom line is, every author needs to know these ‘tricks’ and check their whole manuscripts for compliance with the editors criteria, because, in fact, they are not the editors’ whims, but the common, universal patterns of perception of fiction, which form readers’ expectations of our books. This is why her majesty Page One is so important, and this is why I am off to  sit down and check my own Page One for compliance with these requirements– right away!

William_Howen_allchin_Open Book

William T.Howell Allchin. Open Book.

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