Whether or not you can write or edit, everyone reading this–hopefully–can read. (I know, bad joke.) Today I want to talk about what I have learned about the skills necessary for alpha- or beta-reading, and how to apply what you already know about reading, writing, and editing to being an alpha-reader.
But first, a few definitions.
A writer is one who writes. It is his job to tell a story the very best he can. An editor‘s job, then, is to turn that story into something acceptable to a wider audience. (These definitions are simplistic, but I’ve already covered the definitions of various roles here.)
An alpha-reader, also called a “first reader,” exists to help the writer know what it is she has written. Sounds odd, right? But actually they are incredibly useful. Since the story happens entirely in the writer’s head, it is hard for the writer to tell how much of that story has actually made it to the page and what impact the words she has chosen to paint the story with will have on a reader.
The alpha-reader’s job, then, is to recreate their reading experience for the author. They can do this in various ways, but the more detailed the description and summary of their various reactions (not just the negative ones and not just the positive ones), the more helpful they will be.
So, then, what is a beta-reader? Beta-readers and gamma-readers are the next step. If alpha-readers read the first draft a writer produces, beta-readers read the second draft with fresh eyes and gamma-readers read the third. Each of these sets of readers gets to see the various drafts before the professional editor ever touches a page, so the writer can make his writing the best he can before he begins submitting his work to the professional world.
Yes, you read that right. Alpha-readers are unpaid volunteers, but their task is crucial to the professional writing process. Why are they unpaid? For the simple reason that writers are poor and can’t afford to pay everyone who helps them with their writing. However, many authors reward their volunteer readers with free copies of their published works, and of course, there is the joy of being involved and seeing a story before anyone else gets to.
Want to read books but can’t afford to do so? Become an alpha-reader.
Writers often have “Internal Editors” when they write: pesky little demons that sit on your shoulder and tell you everything that’s wrong about your writing. There comes a point in a writer’s life, too, when they develop pesky little demons called “Internal Writers” that plague them when they read others’ books, babbling nonstop about how they would have written the book differently if its rough draft had first been in their hands.
Internal Editors are the bane of a writer’s “first draft” experience. Internal Writers are the bane of a reader’s experience. However, I have actually been able to squash most of my Internal Writer-demons by becoming an alpha-reader.
What A Writer Needs to Know.
When a writer requests the help of first readers, they are not looking to know what their readers would have written. They want to know the effect their book is having in its current form. For example, a writer wants to know
- Clarity. Do you understand what is going on? Can you picture the setting and the characters in your head? Can you see where everyone is in relationship to each other? Was the fight scene confusing? Is my word choice obscure?
- Impact. Was this part funny or did it fall flat? Do you like these characters at this moment? Are you frustrated with them? Do you love them? Are you afraid? Is this intense? Are you bored? Do you wish you could stop reading? Do you feel like you’re there with the characters? Was this part a tear-jerker or were you annoyed? Was the ending satisfying or did I drop the ball?
- Believability. How are my characters’ reactions? Does this feel plausible to you? Is this the way you handle a gun in your experience? Do I need to do further research about xyz? Does my fight scene feel real? Does this fit together and make sense?
- Interest. Does this fascinate you the way it fascinates me? Are you hooked? Is this too much detail or not enough?
Alpha-readers, especially alpha-readers who are also writers, will sometimes try to “fix” the book like an editor might do or “rewrite” it to suit their tastes. The problem with this is that unless you know what the writer is aiming for, you could do more damage than good–or simply waste everyone’s time tearing something apart that actually doesn’t need fixing. So the less the alpha-reader tries to “fix” and the more time they spend recreating their experience and answering a writer’s unspoken questions, the more good they will do. This is the challenge. I am not perfect at it, but I’m getting better.
The way I do my alpha-reading is entirely “stream of conscious”. If I have a thought or I feel something as I read, I record it. Let me see if I can pull something from the public domain to use as an example.
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.—
>>Wow, I wonder what happened to bring him here? Though I get the sense this Duke fellow has a touch of the theatrics to put his heartache so dramatically.
Haha yes, I just used the first three lines in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as an example. So you see–it does not matter how good or how poor the quality of the writing, alpha-reading is about recording your thoughts and your experience as you read. I do it by quoting a few lines to anchor the writer so she knows what part I’m commenting on, and then giving my reactions by talking back to the text.
Then at the end of the chapter or section, I break to give a broader summary of the most striking points and thoughts I had.
Not everyone does it this way, but this is the way I’ve done it since I started giving feedback in writing instead of in person. Still, if alpha-reading appeals to you and you want to give it a try, I’d encourage you to recreate your thoughts and feelings as detailed and as complete as possible. The more you leave out, the less the writer knows. Also, don’t offer editing advice unless the writer asks for it.
Questions? Comments? Additions?