Posts Tagged ‘hook the reader’s attention’

“Coach Teresa, what should I do before hiring an editor?”

Look at Your Manuscript with an Editor’s Lens

By Teresa LeYung Ryan

Writing Career Coach; Manuscript Consultant; Author

Since writing a story with the intent to engage the reader is so much like meeting a stranger and wanting him/her to be interested in you, you’d want to hook the reader’s attention in the first quarter of your story (starting with the first page, oftentimes with the first line).

I love working with diligent writers who want to transform their manuscripts into page-turners. However, there are things you can do before you give your work to an editor. Let me show you how you can help yourself.

The big four elements to look for in your manuscript:

  • Planting hook(s) or story-question(s);
  • Grounding the reader with the three Ws (Who? When? Where?);
  • Showing (not telling) what the protagonist wants;
  • Paying attention to language and rules

Let’s learn from the pros.

Planting Hook or Story-Question:

In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston hooks us with the first line: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you…” Then, Ms. Kingston transitions into her story with: “Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one . . .”

Grounding the Reader with the Three Ws:

In Woven of Water, while the story timeline spans from 1957 to 2005, Californian author Luisa Adams brilliantly shows us who she was as a girl (not with a year-by-year narrative, but with a single exquisite chapter). Because she grounded us with “who, when, where,” we eagerly follow as she (the middle-aged woman) takes us into her enchanted world of a “cottage in the forest.”

Showing What the Protagonist Wants:

In The Other Mother, young Carol Schaefer wants to ask questions: “Was there any way to keep my baby? Was there anyone who would help me find a way to do that?”

Elizabeth Gilbert hooks us with “I wish Giovanni would kiss me…” in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Simple as that.  She’ll have other desires as her story moves forward, but, right there on page 1, she’s clear about what she wants.

In Love Made of Heart, protagonist Ruby Lin is thinking: What have I done?  I watch the uniformed police officers escort my mother from my apartment.

Paying Attention to Language and Rules:

Read the first five pages of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and you will see how this wordsmith plays with language and rules. (You can “bend” the rules to create flow, but you must not ignore the rules.)

Are you saying: “Coach Teresa, that’s my style–I don’t like to use commas all that much. You might see typos but that’s your job right to correct them? I write like I talk. Okay.”

I say: “Read your manuscript out loud.  Do you really talk like that?  If you hear yourself pausing in a sentence, that’s probably where you’d put a comma. You are a writer; use correct spelling.  Do use vernacular that is indicative of your story-world; however, will your reader hear the differences in speech patterns in your characters OR will they hear just one voice in all the characters?”

Sentences Deserve Your Attention:

Remember Groucho Marx’s line “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas…”? That sentence got a lot of laughs. But, what if you didn’t want to be funny (ambiguous in this case)? Watch out for those misplaced modifiers.

How would you rewrite these poorly constructed sentences?

  • He likes to fish near the Farallon Islands and they jump when they’re hungry at dawn or dusk.
  • She insists on knowing when I come home and leave, not to be nosy, but for safety reasons.
  • Being cautious as not to step on the dog’s tail, the children tip-toed away from him while sleeping.
  • My husband still in bed snoring, I have always enjoyed rising before dawn and I eat my toast and drink my green tea on the terrace.

To improve your sentence structuring and other skills, I recommend these books:

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
  • Woe is I: Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

More Advice:

  • In all the stories referenced above, the authors present memorable experiences by employing authentic details, unusual story-worlds, and poetic language. You want to do the same for your story.
  • Also, the stories have another vital component–all the plotlines have what Martha Alderson, author of Blockbuster Plots, Pure and Simple, calls “Cause and Effect” linked scenes. Another must-read blog: Plot Whisperer
  • When you’re writing non-fiction and do not have the luxury of rearranging the sequence of events to create a page-turning plotline, you can engage the reader by using concise expositions to leap over blocks of time in order to focus on the core themes and fast-forward the story. A helpful website: Linda Joy Myer’s
  • You the author must show the reader what the protagonist wants, even if the protagonist doesn’t know at first.
  • We don’t have to “like” a protagonist, but, we do need to connect with him/her on an emotional level.
  • Read my colleague Vicki Weiland’s “Vicki’s Four Questions” © on her blog:

In the fiercely competitive arena of the publishing world, how does one stand out in a crowd? Building relationships is one key to success in this business. Another key is to know how to translate the themes from your life to your writing and articulate those themes as community concerns. I want to see all hardworking writers realize their dreams.

My best wishes to you!


Teresa LeYung Ryan

Coach Teresa edits manuscripts for authors who want to attract agents  & publishers  OR  want to be their own publishers. She specializes in contemporary novels, thrillers, children’s & YA novels, memoirs, short stories, and anthologies.

22-Day Platform-Building Coach Teresa LeYung Ryan helps authors identify their themes to hook agents' and publishers' attention.

author of Love Made of  Heart

author of Build Your Writer’s Platform & Fanbase In 22 Days

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