Lisa Lenard-Cook

The Lonely Writer's Companion

“One Page”

Welcome to The Lonely Writer’s Companion. The format’s simple: You send in your questions, and each month I’ll select one to answer. Email your questions to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.) You can also contact me through my website,

"This is a tough love post. If that scares you, don’t read on."

Question: How can an agent tell if my manuscript is any good by reading only one page?

The Lonely Writer responds:This is a tough love post. If that scares you, don’t read on. But if you want your work to connect with readers, you must.

When someone I don’t know asks if I’ll work with them, I ask them to send me a page of their work.

One page? How can I possibly know anything from one page?

How could I not?

Ask any editor or agent and you’ll hear the same thing, sometimes with even stricter parameters. More than one agent has told me she reads the first sentence, and only if she likes that will she read on. If she’s not hooked by the end of the first paragraph, she’s out of there.

This is not a paean to a magical first sentence. Nor am I advocating for the “hook,” which I think is overrated and often, counter-productive. Here’s a list of what I, as a reader, writer, editor, teacher, and mentor, demand of everything I read, published or unpublished. You might want to print it and hang it above your desk.

1. Voice is paramount. The best voices meld author, narrator, and point of view character so seamlessly that those who don’t study writing won’t notice. Those of us who do will take apart the text in order to see how it’s done.

2. Mystery keeps readers reading. I’m not referring to the genre, but rather to the questions that propel plot. Not just your entire manuscript, but every scene, must rise in action, from the moment it begins. Especially your first one.

3. Characters are people readers immediately want to learn more about. This applies to life, too—think of those with whom you love to spend time versus those you’d rather avoid. This doesn’t mean characters have to be likable. It does mean they have to be vivid. Especially the first time we meet them.

"You cannot shirk any aspect of craft if you want to be published."

4. Mastery of craft, all aspects of craft, including not only the above, but point of view, setting, pacing, front story, backstory, and, and, and. You cannot shirk any aspect of craft if you want to be published. There are no exceptions.

5. Grammar, spelling, and tense agreement, and 6. Adherence to standard formatting. It pains me to have to include these last two items, but when I look at a manuscript that contains more than a few typos or uses a non-standard font, the lack of respect for me as a reader just pisses me off. If you’re not good at grammar, ask someone who is to help you. Give them something you’re good at, in exchange. If you don’t know what I mean by “standard formatting,” Google it.

If your first page doesn’t contain every one of the above, it needs work. Don’t pay me or someone else to tell you so, and don’t waste money sending a manuscript to contests when it doesn’t yet include all these important aspects of craft.

"You know in your gut if your work is doing this or not. If it’s not, don’t send it out."

How do you learn to master these aspects of writing?

  • writing how-to books
  • classes
  • conferences
  • MFA Programs
  • critique groups
  • one-on-ones with editors or coaches

All of us at some point set out to write without knowing all the basics. But those of us who’ve been published apprenticed ourselves in one or more of the above ways. If you’re in a hurry to publish, fine. There are now plenty of avenues for you to do so. But if you care about the quality of your work, and how your finished product reflects on your own integrity, if you care whether you’re going to connect with readers—lots of readers—then you’ve got to master the skills, from basic to sophisticated, that every writer you admire has learned.

Editors and agents are underpaid and overworked. They aren’t looking for raw potential. They’re looking for writers who’ve done the hard work of translating what’s in their heads onto the page in a way that engages readers and doesn’t let them go.

You know in your gut if your work is doing this or not. If it’s not, don’t send it out. Let it simmer, revise, and rewrite, and someday, if you worked hard at it, you will succeed. I promise.


Got a question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion? Email it to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.) Your question could appear in a future column.


Find Your Story Writer Your Memoir
Find Your Story,
Write Your Memoir

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
and Lynn C. Miller
Buy This Book via

PEN-short-listed author Lisa Lenard-Cook’s most recent book is Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press), which she co-authored with Lynn C. Miller, with whom she co-founded of ABQ Writers Co-op (, creating community in New Mexico for writers everywhere. She's an editor of the literary magazine bosque, on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and the Board of Narrative Arts Center in Santa Fe. Website: