The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by literary agent Noah Lukeman, is an eye-opener. Any author querying agents should read this first. As Lukeman writes, agents and editors don’t read manuscripts for their own enjoyment. They read solely with the goal of getting through the slush pile, and so are reading with an eye to dismiss manuscripts.
Some of the reasons, he writes, to dismiss a manuscript:
* The presentation or formatting of the manuscript is wrong
* The author has queried an agent or editor inappropriate to the author’s work
* The overuse or misuse of adjectives and adverbs
* The rhythm of the prose is poor (this includes poor sentence construction and grammatical mistakes)
* The overuse of analogies, similes, and metaphors
* Stylistic errors, such as redundancy or writing that is too noticeable
* Bad dialogue. “If, at a quick glance, our initial impression of a manuscript is that it suffers from one of the preliminary problems, we then look to dialogue: if it, too, is poor, we needn’t look any further,” Lukeman writes.
If a manuscript does make it beyond the first few pages and shows none of the above problems, agents and editors then look at “showing versus telling,” viewpoint and narration, characterization, subtlety, tone, focus, and pacing, Lukeman says.
Finally, Lukeman admits (as I’ve heard other agents say) that they often ignore synopses and plot outlines at first, starting instead with the manuscript. If the manuscript is good, agents will then go back to the synopsis.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.