One of the frequent questions I get is “what is an opening chapters assessment, and what does it really do for me?”
Most authors come across these kinds of critiques during feedback opportunities (e.g. #CarinaPitch, #RevPit) or during auctions (e.g. STARs Auction) and contests (e.g. On the Far Side). But a lot of authors don’t know what to expect going in or expect something along the lines of a personalized rejection: a short paragraph with generic, broad strokes feedback about your line edit craft.
But an opening chapters critique is so much more than that. It presents a huge opportunity for authors to grow not just as writers, but as story developers and fabricators.
So today I thought it would be a fantastic idea to talk about what opening chapters critiques are, and really look at the potential value of investing in such a critique.
And make sure you check out the end of the post for a giveaway that’s running for all of April!
What is an Opening Chapters Assessment?
An opening chapters critique is a light developmental edit of the first 30 – 50 pages of your book. Depending on the editor, you either get a comprehensive editorial letter that breaks down what you’re doing right, areas of improvement, and the apparent marketable hooks of your book. Other editors (like myself) take it a step further and provide some in-manuscript edits to give you more pinpointed examples of the wider concepts discussed in the editorial letter.
The goal of an opening chapters assessment is to really enable you, as the author, to take some distance from your manuscript (particularly the setup of your book) and revisit the story you’re trying to tell from the perspective of a reader who is walking into it cold.
It’s hard to gain distance from something you’ve spent a lot of time with, so having a publishing professional view it with a reader-centered and technical eye is super helpful in pointing out the questions that you might have answers for in your mind, but haven’t actually made it onto the page.
What is the Value of Paying for it?
So great, we know what an opening chapters assessment does and that there are plenty of free chances to get one. Why the heck should you pay?
Well, there are five main reasons I think an author should get an opening chapters assessment. I don’t necessarily recommend it for everyone, because it’s not always a necessary step, but for authors who find themselves asking for…
A Critique of Your First 30 – 50 Pages Gives You Feedback on Your Setup
For the enterprising author, an opening chapters assessment is a good opportunity to get editorial feedback on a small portion of your book that you can then apply to the rest of your work.
This means if you’re already a strong writer, you don’t necessarily have to spend money on a developmental editor, because just that 50-page look at the questions your book should answer, and the concerns or potholes raised as potential issues, is enough to get you to a point where you can cover your bases and structurally write a good book.
And if you’re an author who is very great at middles and endings, but really struggles to find the right setup for your work, an opening chapters critique will allow you to gauge whether or not you’ve hit that sweet spot of starting in the right place.
After this kind of service, you’ll learn that if the editor or agent who is giving you this feedback is confused, you’ve started too late. And if the reverse happens (they feel like the pacing is dragging and/or there’s a lot of extraneous information there), then you’re starting too early.
Having that opening chapters critique is a good place to start to gauge the pacing of your story and the ability of your story’s setup to hook the reader into this world you’ve created. If that’s all you need to know, why pay for a full edit?
An Opening Chapters Assessment can Show Your Areas of Blindness
When you’ve been working on a book for so long, reading and rereading it over and over again, you lose sight of the end product and the needs of the end consumer. You lose sight of how somebody who has never read this book will experience it.
And while sending your work to beta readers is a very excellent way of checking in with your readership and tuning into their reactions and interests, having a professional editor take a look at your book is also an opportunity for learning techniques and explanations for things that you (or your beta readers) might know don’t sit right, but you don’t necessarily have the words to express.
(Be honest, sometimes you know something isn’t hitting right, but you have no clue what it is or how you can fix it.)
And a big blind spot authors never realize they have are their internal biases. We all have bias, internalized stereotypes, prejudices, and judgments that even when we’re trying to do good (e.g. include more representation or present an alternative narrative), almost undermine our effort. And as an editor, let me tell you that most of the time those biases show in the way you describe characters versus the way they’re treated by the secondary characters. Seriously, this is a lot more common than you think.
An opening chapters critique can unveil your blind spots. Your editor can make you aware of disparities between what your query letter and setup promises versus what your book is all about. They can even point out implicit questions that you’ve may have raised in your story, but don’t necessarily get answered. And of course, they’ll point out when you’re perpetuating harmful biases.
Many times, after an opening chapters critique, authors will respond with something that goes like “that’s exactly what was missing, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”
An Opening Critique is a Good Indicator of the Type/Amount of Editing You Need & Editorial Fit
If the editor is making a lot of developmental suggestions (e.g. covering plot holes, narrowing down on characterization, restructuring/reorganizing big sections or chapters at a time, or asking for massive re-writes, etc.) in just the first 30 pages, then you know you’re not ready to go on submission, and you either have to take some time to work on your story craft and that you’ll probably need one or two rounds of developmental editing to make sure that your story’s foundations are laid right.
If you get more line edit suggestions (notes on word repetition, autonomous/self-conscious body parts, or how very, very wordy your writing is), then maybe it’s worth picking up a few writing craft books and now you know you can’t skip over a line edit pass for this book.
But not only do opening chapters critiques enable you (and your editor) to know what the main editorial focus for the book will be; it’s also a very good indicator of editorial fit.
Let’s be honest, sample edits are really not the best measure of author-editor fit. There’s so much up to chance, depending on where in the book the sample pages come from, to how much time the editor invested in that “free” edit. And don’t get me started on how difficult it is to do a developmental sample edit when so much of an editorial letter is about the story mechanics and forces working over the course of the entire book. It just doesn’t give you a true picture. And not every editor will give you the same kind of feedback for the same service.
So think of the opening chapters critique as a great way to blind date editors—it’s just long enough for the editor to feel like “I can make substantive contributions,” but brief enough that it doesn’t put a hole in your pocket. And because it is so much more investment on both your parts, it’s a great place to see how the editor interacts with you in the margins.
Are the comments they’re giving you inspiring you to make changes? Do you find yourself nodding and, again, saying “that’s exactly what’s missing here”? And on the negative side of things, is the editor making you feel like they don’t understand your story concept? Are they explaining their feedback in a way that doesn’t make sense to you? Do you feel comfortable throwing questions back for clarification?
The editor whose opening chapters assessment opens your creativity, inspires you to make changes that you feel will enhance your story, and makes you anticipate their reaction because your partners in this dynamic and you both want to get it right: that’s the one you want to edit your book when it’s ready for that because they get you as a creative. And more importantly, when they don’t get you, you feel comfortable expressing your concerns and opinions (it’s your book after all).
Assessments Offer a Smart Way to Improve Your Query Package
If you’re interested in publishing traditionally, getting your first 30 – 50 pages looked at is a very good opportunity for you to polish your opening chapters. Not only because that’s what editors and agents inevitably ask to see, but because it gives you the chance to polish your story synopsis and upgrade the backend of your manuscript to really deliver on the premise you’re selling to them.
I often see submissions that I can tell that the author went ahead and had somebody professional edit the first few chapters, but then there’s the shocking drop not only in the quality of the writing but in the actual story after a certain point. That is so disappointing.
So I really implore you, that if you are getting an opening chapters assessment for the purpose of polishing your submission package, go the extra mile and use what you learned from that edit to improve your whole book. The whole book.
That to me as an editor signifies that you’re serious about your writing. If I can give you a little bit of a critique, and you change the book for the better, and show me that all it takes is a chance—that’s the author I’m going to try to acquire even if there is still some more work to be done.
You learn so much about a person from how they receive feedback and what they do with it, so you want to be the person who makes the most out of that opportunity. You want to be the person that people don’t doubt if you can make the changes and if it is worth even asking.
Put your best foot forward and show them that you can.
I’m not saying that you should mention getting an opening chapters critique in your query letter (don’t), I’m saying the people who do get a critique from feedback opportunities and contests, and then submit the full manuscript to the same editor after really taking in that feedback and using it to inform the rest of their revisions—they get noticed.
And you want to get noticed.
Lastly, it’s a Fantastic Opportunity to Learn and Grow as an Author
Not only does your writing improve from an opening chapters critique, but your self-awareness also does too. Your knowledge of your foibles improves, but you also learn what kind of feedback you need to push yourself into being a stronger and better writer.
And, since publishing or editing is so expensive, you learn how to direct your efforts to maximize your financial investment. If you can’t necessarily afford a developmental edit or all the writing courses that get highly recommended in your writing group (or even attend conferences, because those things are really freaking expensive), an opening chapters critique is a solid investment for you and your writing.
It’s not just about experiencing what it’s like to get professional criticism on your work, it’s about you learning your areas of weakness, so you can budget for that course that you know will level up your writing. So you can drill down and spend time on the things that will make you better than your last book.
You are worth the investment if you know you’ll put in the time and the energy to make the most out of it. So do it. Invest in yourself, and give yourself a chance to really impress yourself.