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Pen to Pen: Editing your first chapter with Annetta Ribken

I’ve been neck-deep in developmental edits for the past couple weeks, so this post from Annetta Ribken is a timely refresher. What’s developmental editing? Developmental editing takes a look at the big picture, rather than the nitty-gritty of word choice and grammar. It’s the first type of editing any story should go through.

During this crucial phase in a manuscript’s life, a writer or editor asks: What is the purpose of this story? Is there anything missing that would help accomplish this purpose? Does the story contain extraneous passages or plot lines that distract from this purpose? Are the scenes in the best possible order for telling your story (hint: the best order isn’t always chronological)? And, most importantly of all, is the story interesting?

These questions help identify what to work on first as you revise your manuscript. And in the long run they save you time, because you don’t waste energy on massaging the wording of passages that don’t move your story forward. You just delete them.

New to developmental editing? Annetta offers great advice on specific things to ask yourself and where to start: your first chapter.

—Dale


Developmental Editing: Your First Chapter

by Annetta Ribken

One of the most satisfying feelings in the world is typing THE END on a story you’ve slaved over. And one of the most terrifying feelings is opening the file up to start the editing process.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially during the first pass. Where do you start? What do you look for? How do you get a handle on all the things you need to consider when editing your story?

The best approach, in my experience, is to take the editing in rounds. There’s no way you can catch everything in one pass, and you’ll drive yourself crazier if you try.

Start With The First Chapter

Your first chapter is incredibly important. This is where you establish your writer’s “voice,” where you set up the world you’ve created and the problem facing your protagonist. This is where your reader gets their first introduction to the important players in your story and the conflict they’ll be dealing with throughout the book. The first chapter is your opportunity to hook the reader into reading the rest of the story, and hopefully any other books in the series.

Five Ways to Pump Up Your First Chapter

As you read through the first chapter, ask yourself these questions and take notes:

  1. Do you have a strong opening line? This is the first thing readers will see—make it interesting, make it attention-grabbing, make it COUNT.
  2. Start when the story starts. One of the biggest issues I see with writers is they start off with a lot of backstory to seat the reader in this sparkling universe the writer has created. NO. Start with action, start with a mystery, but start when the story starts—not with a history, not with weather, and not with a dream.
  3. Get your protagonist talking. Dialog is really the best and easiest way to introduce your protagonist to the reader and encourage them to get to know each other. Create a character readers will care about, cheer for, and travel with throughout this journey.
  4. Establish the when and where. You want to give your reader a clear picture of when and where this story takes place.
  5. What’s the big deal? This is what drives a story, and you need to establish the issue your protagonist will be dealing with and what’s at stake. This is how you hook a reader through the heart—make them care by creating stakes that matter and doing this in the first chapter.

The whole book is important, but the first chapter really is where you make your mark and set your stamp. Make sure it does its job by enticing the reader into the actual story and make it impossible for them to quit reading at the end of chapter one. If they cuss you out because they’ve missed a night’s sleep, then you’ve done your job.


About Annetta Ribken

headshot of Annetta RibkenA professional developmental editor of almost two hundred novels, Annetta Ribken has also been writing since a tender young age, when letters were chiseled on stone tablets. A precocious student, Annetta earned her PhD in the School of Hard Knocks, with honors, in the early Age of Disco. She lives and works just outside of St. Louis with her evil feline overlord, a rescued shelter cat named Athena.

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About Pen to Pen

Pen to Pen is a weekly column where authors stop by to share what they’ve learned about the art and business of writing. Do you have wisdom to share, or maybe a lesson you learned the hard way? Please sign up to be a guest author.

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