Alpha-Reading

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.

Common Challenges.

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Techniques.

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.

DUKE.
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?


28 responses to “Alpha-Reading

  • Joe Vasicek

    Good points. I agree; I find it much more helpful, at least with my first couple rounds of test readers, to just get a reader reaction and not a detailed prescription of changes I need to make. That’s why several of mine are readers and not writers.

    So does this mean that you’re willing to alpha read some stuff again? Because if you are, I have a couple of pieces I’d love to get your feedback on. :)

    • Laura

      Haha sure, send them my way! I have a YA fantasy that I need to alpha-read first, but if you don’t mind a few weeks’ wait, I will add them to my queue? *amused*

  • Epheros Aldor

    Wow, being a test reader sounds like it could get tedious, especially if you are working with a writer that doesn’t seem to prepare there ‘first’ draft well.
    You mention that your are a writer and sometimes find your writer hat on rather than your test reader hat. Has test reading helped immensely in your own writing? About how much time do you spend actually working on a standard length novel (90k-120k words)?

    • Laura

      Yes, alpha-reading can get tedious or it can be a lot of work if you do all your reading at once or if the writer has basically slapped a rough draft together without much thought. To combat the tedium, there are options, however–such as only working a chapter a day, choosing whom you alpha-read for carefully, or deciding alpha-reading isn’t for you but you would rather be a beta or a gamma-reader and work with later drafts that are closer to the “finished product”.

      Test reading has helped me immensely, yes. I have seen all kinds of rough drafts over the years, which has served as a sort of yardstick to measure my own writing with and where I am at, skill-wise. Seeing other writers work the writing process has also given me confidence to revise and courage to believe that no matter what my rough draft looks like, it can get better–and how. The opportunity to dissect other writers’ writing also helps me to dissect my own and know where my own problem areas are. And channeling my Inner Writer to work out how to verbalize my reading experience means that I can enjoy reading others’ books without the urge to rewrite them. *amused* Reading is essential to a writer.

      I have also saved a lot of money (I am quite poor) on books that I wouldn’t have been able to read if I hadn’t volunteered to read them as an alpha or a beta.

      As for how long it takes me to alpha or beta-read a typical book, I try to do four or five chapters a week, or about a chapter per day with some off-days in between. So, anywhere from one to two months. This speed actually works quite well, since writers often need a few months’ break between drafts.

      When I alpha-read short stories, though, I can do it all in one sitting and it takes me an hour tops.

  • Charlie Holmberg

    What a great post! I totally agree with this, and it helps remind me what I’m supposed to do when I read others’ works. I’m going to put this in my Link Blitz for sure!!

  • Jayrod Garrett (@JayrodPG)

    Oh my goodness! I’ve been wanting to read a post on Alpha reading for so long! And you addressed all of the concerns I’ve ever had about it. I will start using this as my method for sharing information from now on and hopefully it will help me to be a better Alpha Reader. I’m posting this on my blog so more people see it! Thanks so much!

  • youngheart80

    Wow, great post and I’m definitely guilty of trying to “fix” when reading.

  • Mary Robinette Kowal

    I just want to add that Laura is a FANTASTIC alpha reader. I’ve been fortunate enough to have her read two books for me now. She’s great.

  • Alphas & Betas « The Undiscovered Author

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  • Barb

    You nailed it. It’s frustrating when another writer checks my adverbs or dialog tags when all I’m asking is if I’m being clear, too fast or too slow, making sense, etc. I can still read like a reader, so I don’t get why writers can’t turn their inner editors off! ;-) But probably it’s because I don’t have a good inner editor myself, LOL! Anyway, I’m so plot/character oriented, that I don’t really care about the rest… and I’m always looking for alpha readers, are you available? ;-)

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  • lpstribling

    Reblogged this on L.P.'s and commented:
    When someone gives you something to read, let’s remember that its in its roughest form. That is to say, don’t worry about the small stuff. We’re looking for contextual continuity. Go team.

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    [...] story issues, while beta readers get into the nitty-gritty editorial stuff. Mine are doing both. L.A. Christensen writes that alpha readers read the first draft, and betas read the second draft. Mine are reading [...]

  • Mark A. Mandel

    I’m revising the Wikipedia article “Beta reader” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_reader), which considered the author to be the “alpha reader” and anyone else pre-publication a “beta reader”. I would like to quote from this post, but only with your permission.

    My comments on the previous version of the page are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Beta_reader#alpha_vs._beta .

    My draft version of the page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Thnidu/sandbox

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  • Peggy :)

    Hi Laura!

    That sounds like some pretty in-depth alpha-reading! (I do something very similar in my writing group. :)) I’m curious, does your in-depth method ever pull you out of the story because you stop to take notes or conversely, if the story ever gets so interesting, you forget about note-taking. If so (in either case), how does that affect your feedback?

    So how long does it take you to alpha-read the average book? Do you read at a computer so you can put in your notes as you go or do you sit in a comfie chair and jot notes by hand?

    YA fantasy, eh? Sounds like the stuff I like! I’m interested in using your alpha-reading services, too, when you’re available. :)

    • Laura

      It depends on the method. If the person I’m alpha-reading for is posting a protected chapter via wordpress or livejournal and expecting feedback in the comments, the back and forth of grabbing a line for context and then responding to it in a separate document can sometimes cause me to miss a line. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. Sometimes with hilarious results, but I do tend to catch myself and reread to right my reaction.

      I prefer to have someone send me a word document. Then I can respond as I go with comment-bubbles in the margins and track-changes for in-line comments. The act of reading and responding is fairly seamless in that case, and I’m able to give more reactions and feedback as I go, I don’t miss as much of what is happening, and I don’t have to leave the story in order to respond.

      Otherwise, yes, sometimes the story is just so intense in parts that I can’t slow myself down enough to react to it coherently. But if that’s the case I do try to note it’s happening, even if my comment is a simple, “Agh, so intense!” Otherwise I let the author know why I went radio silent as soon as the story lets up its intensity enough for me to breathe again.

      Comments don’t always have to be well-thought-out paragraphs in order to let the author know what’s up. They can be as simple as “Cool!” or “Wow, how interesting!” or “Oh my goodness, did he just say that? I foresee trouble ahead!”

      As for how long it takes me to alpha/beta-read a book, it takes me about a month to do 50k, two months for 100k. I tend to average about a chapter or two a day, 3-5 times a week. For method, I alpha/beta-read exclusively on the computer. I only jot down notes by hand if someone wants me to do a final proofread of their .mobi file to see how well something reads on the Kindle. It just takes too long and the feedback wouldn’t be very thorough otherwise. (The consequence of this, though, is that I have a hard time reading for fun at my computer. Not that it’s a dire consequence.)

      I’ll let you know when I’m off my break!

      • Peggy :)

        Thanks for the insight into your process! Really, this is such an awesome article for alpha-readers (and writers, too), it made me dash off and alpha read the next thing waiting for me. *lol* (And I totally agree on the in-document being easier than via blog/posted style.)

      • Laura

        No problem! Good luck, have fun!

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