Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 12, 2011

An Editor Looks at First Page Sessions

An Editor Looks at First Pages by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe

As a writer, I know the excruciating pain of having my work read aloud. Body sinking lower and lower, cheeks burning, I’m positive that the judge and jury—meaning the editors and my peers—know exactly who’s to blame for what they just heard.

As an editor, I’m on the other side of the desk for first pages. I’m still nervous (although admittedly not as much as you are). You’ve spent hours carving and sanding and polishing your first page until it shines. My turn: I have a minute to listen and understand, and then critique right on the spot—editorial improv. I pray that in my clumsiness or exhaustion I don’t knock you off your path.

When I’m wearing my writer’s hat, the eccentric one with the silver deely-boppers, I can be paralyzed by a single wrong word, even though it’s given as professional criticism. People cluck their tongues and chant, “You need a thick skin to be a writer!” Yeah, sure. Some days not even a Kevlar bodysuit works. I always have that in mind when I do first pages and critiques. Other editors do too.

Editors usually take turns reacting first to an author’s page, which both delights and terrifies me. I hate being the first to criticize a manuscript. I love being the first to praise it. I hate looking like an idiot who couldn’t recognize a Newbery book even if it was stickered. I love looking like a literary genius who has insight into everything.

Quite honestly, an editor may be completely baffled by some manuscripts. Not at this conference, but at previous ones, I have stared at first pages, listened to first pages, and come up empty. The worst was when I couldn’t say whether the manuscript was animal, vegetable, or mineral. I was so clueless I didn’t even know what was wrong with the piece. And if it was so bad that it was beyond criticism, then it had to be really, really horrible, right? I sputtered, totally helpless and totally useless. All I could think about was the poor author just feet away.

Into the sounds of my choking jumped the other editor. He knew exactly what the author had been aiming for, why I had missed it, and what needed to be done. He got it. I didn’t.

The reverse has happened too, of course. While the page is being read, I’ll hear a quick gulp of “animal, vegetable, or mineral” panic next to me. Meanwhile, I’m eager to point out all the many things the author has done right and the very few things he or she needs to do to make a good opening great. I got this one.

Like writers, we editors bring our own strengths and weaknesses to a first-page session. We bring our personal biases for and personal biases against certain formats, genres, topics, and styles. And we bring a wide range of skills, including varying abilities to verbalize first impressions on the spot—a skill that does not necessarily indicate how good an editor we really are outside the conference room and back in the office.

Editorial improv.
Maybe Kevlar bodysuits are needed for both sides of the desk.

Thank you Susan for writing this article to help us see a First Page Session from a different perspective.  And thank you for sharing your expertise with the writers at the conference.

Frankenstein’s Monster, a novel for adults
Now in paperback from Three Rivers / Random House
Death by Eggplant, a novel for middle graders
Now in paperback from Macmillan / Square Fish
Plus numerous other books.
Blog:tales from a restless sleeper…

Talk tomorrow,



  1. This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read as far as enabling us to see something like this from the other side. Susan, I’m SO grateful for this because I think we writers are always thinking (well, I should speak for myself) that editors and agents are so used to judging work, that this wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do. I didn’t stop to think that you (speaking plurally) would be worried about the effect it would have on certain writers.

    I actually do have a pretty thick skin, but a lot of people don’t and it’s comforting to know that you are sensitive to that 🙂 Thank you!


    • I hope too it shows that editors don’t always connect with a piece enough to be truly constructive–especially on the spot. So besides the issue of speed, there’s also the issue of understanding.


  2. I think you naield it, Susan! 🙂
    I love how you describe a first page session. As soon as my words are read, I get so terrified. In my head, I start chanting, “awful, awful, awful.” Sometimes I can barely contain myself from jumping up, raising my hand high and saying, “yes, it’s me, I am the one who wrote this drivel. Stop reading it.” But of course, I keep my eyes on my notebook, my cheeks burning. At last week’s conference, I was surprised when the editors called a very rough first page of mine “intriguing.” Heck, I’ll take that! 😉

    Thanks for sharing your unique perspective and making us see that it’s sometimes hard for the editor, too!


    • It’s hard for everybody all the time, but that’s true of everything, as soon as we open our eyes in the morning.


  3. Oh, that was great, Susan! It’s always so nice to hear things from the “other side of the table”. Thanks for sharing!


    • I guess it’s, The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I wish I could think of a nifty way to rephrase that for writers.


  4. Thanks, I’m glad it didn’t come off as being completely self-centered, and a kind of “My nerves are worse than your nerves” kind of thing. I got my own dose of exquisite horror at the conference too, as I was able to sit in on Sudipta Bardhan’s picture book intensive. All of the attendees who wanted to had their stories read out loud and critiqued by Sudipta and the group. So my story was read out loud, word by painful word.

    After the last sentence was read, dead silence. I mean, DEAD silence. And I couldn’t bolt because a) that would have revealed who the author was, and b) I’m slow, and they would have caught me.

    I’m glad this rung a bell for you.


    • I didn’t see this as self-centered at all. What I appreciate the most about what you wrote is that, as writers struggling to get published and improving our craft as we go, we’re less likely to see the editors and agents (the professional people we see as “in control”) as being nervous in these situations, so if anything, it’s the writers who would tend to be more self-centered, I think.

      You’ve reminded us that most of us are in the same boat, whether at the helm or holding an oar. Thank you 🙂


  5. Just read this today, and it’s great to hear from the other side! I participated in a first page session 3 yrs. ago. One of the best experiences I ever had-ever. I was sweating bullets, as I waited, and my piece was a late entry so was read second to last. The editors were great and very honest. Good or bad, that’s all any writer can ask for, I think. After hearing some tough critiques, I really wanted to just grab mine and run out of there. But I didn’t, couldn’t, and got some great feedback, even a suggestion or two that I ended up using in my revisions. I’ll never forget that day, that moment! I liken it to what I’ve seen on some of these reality shows when people perform and get judged on it. Maybe, the NJSCBWI could get Simon from American Idol to come down for a first page session!!!


    • But who would he be judging–the writers or the editors? No one escapes from him.


    • I have to say, Chris, that the NJ SCBWI is too classy to bring him in! LOL


  6. I will have my first taste of this at SCBWI this summer. Thanks for preparing me.


    • Joanna,

      Does that mean you are going to LA?



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