Monday, April 13, 2015

Should You Have an Alpha Reader?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I have a good friend who reads my work during the first draft process (hi Ann!). She’s my alpha reader, giving me thoughts on rough novels I dump right from my head onto the page. Bad pages. Messy pages. Pages that don’t always make sense. It's a tough job, but she’s worth her weight in gold for the invaluable feedback she provides me.

The merits of beta readers (people who read and offer feedback on a writers’ manuscript) are widely known, but having someone you trust read brand new pages can be equally valuable.

(Here’s more on beta readers)

Alpha readers aren’t for everyone though, and getting feedback too early can hurt more than it helps. A good alpha reader/writer pairing is one that provides the right amount of guidance and feedback to work within your process to develop your idea, not direction how you ought to write your novel. Each writer will have their own definition of what “the right amount” means. For some, an alpha reader might:
  • Look at rough pages of a work in progress on a chapter by chapter basis
  • Look at the entire first draft when it’s complete
  • Look at a second draft that’s mostly fleshed out, but not yet polished

Benefits of Alpha Readers

They provide objective views on a story concept: Most first drafts are messy, the story is fragmented, and the ideas are all over the place. Some ideas are good, some not so good. Having an outside opinion on what’s working and what’s not can help guide us toward the strongest parts of our story.

They spot areas that aren’t yet fully developed: An alpha reader can suggest where we might dig deeper or lay more groundwork for a major aspect of the story—such as a magic system that isn’t feeling credible, or a setting that’s paper thin and hard to visualize. They’re great for those “I know I need to flesh this out, but I’m not sure where” concerns.

They give first impressions on characters and how they’re portrayed in the story: Characters we love don’t always turn out lovable on the page, and someone who doesn’t know them like we do can spot that disconnect right away. It’s much easier to fix an unlikable character when the draft is still rough than after it’s “done” and any changes have wide, revision ramifications.

Why You Might Want an Alpha Reader

You enjoy first impressions on what works in a draft:
We can’t always tell what will work and what won’t, and a good alpha reader can help identify areas that intrigue and what’s forgettable about the story. For example, if we think a character is the breakout star, but the alpha reader has trouble remembering his name, that lets us know that character probably needs more work to shine the way we see him.

You want to make sure the foundation and basic plot is strong before you spend a lot of time revising: It’s disheartening to spend a year or more on a novel and then find out it’s inherently flawed and needs a total rewrite from scratch. Early feedback can help spot those flaws and allow you to fix them while it’s still easy.

You want someone who’s familiar with the novel so you can discuss it and verbally work out issues: I spend a lot of time on the phone working through scenes and stories with a few of my critique partners. Having an alpha reader know what I’m trying to do who can talk through a sticky scene or problem with me saves time and helps me find more creative solutions.

Why You Might Not Want an Alpha Reader

You’re not sure what the story is about yet:
Maybe you’re not sure if this is a romance with sci fi elements or a sci fi adventure with romantic elements, and you don’t want other opinions getting in the way until you figure that out. You’d rather see how a story unfolds, or who a character is before deciding how to develop the novel.

You’re still working out the story concept:
On the plot side of the same coin, you might have a complex tale and you’re not sure what parts go together or how a premise will unfold. You know it’ll take a draft or two to work out the kinks, and you want the freedom to add and prune as you see fit without outside interference.

You’re easily influenced by feedback:
If there’s a chance you’ll be swayed by feedback, it’s probably better to wait until you’re happy with the draft before getting it critiqued. It can be hard to ignore feedback, especially for newer writers who haven’t had much of their work critiqued, or writers who feel compelled to try to please every reader. Getting feedback too early can sway you to write the novel the alpha reader would write, not you.

You can’t bear the thought of anyone reading your unpolished work: There’s nothing wrong with wanting your work to be the best it can be before anyone else sees it. Some writers don’t want feedback until the novel is polished and as good as they can make it. If others reading your messy work would stress you out, don’t do it.

An alpha reader can be wonderful way to receive early feedback, help spot trouble, and guide a story (and writer) to be the best they can be.

Do you use an alpha reader? Would you use one? Why or why not?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. I have a wonderful alpha reader! She lets me know if my characters are acting out of character, and helps me stay excited about the book while I'm in the first draft stage.

  2. I havent' gotten an alpha reader myself but I am considering pairing with a friend to be each other's alpha reader. Still in the considratiion stages though because it can be a tough job reading and advising on the rough.

    1. It really can be, and it's hard sometimes to ignore the text and focus on the concepts and ideas. You might try a chapter or two and see how it goes. If you guys find it's just not working, you can always stop, and you haven't invested a lot of time in it.

  3. I have an amazing alpha reader who has helped shape my novel for the better. While it is scary to have someone read it at the sloppiest level, it's so helpful to have her read along and let me know what I need to work on.

    1. Great! I feel the same way. Even though we read each other's rough work, I still apologize for it every time :)

  4. I recently finished a novel first draft and sent it to readers. I already knew things that needed work so the hard part for me was thinking of good questions to ask. The benefits you mentioned, like whether parts worked or didn't and character stuff, would be great things to ask about.

    1. Glad I could help. I'm always curious about the basics -- characters, general premise, plot, etc., but each book always seems to have that unique bit I'm iffy on. I tend to ask about the issues I feel will keep me from moving forward or create inherent flaws that'll be a pain to fix later.

  5. As awesome as an alpha reader sounds, I probably wouldn't survive unless my book was completly polished off and crafted to the best it can be. All of my work is super personal to me and I know that I would become easily discouraged by any negetive feedback on my first or second draft.

    1. Then I'd suggest not having alpha readers :) Sounds like they'd only stress you out.

  6. I find it difficult enough to find beta readers without dumping on them all the first draft gibberish my minds spews out.

    1. It does take a special reader to be an alpha. Writer friends who know you and what you're trying to do would probably work better than someone you don't know well. But even a reader could be a good alpha if they can ignore the text and just read for the story. But if you fear you'll scare them off, sticking to betas works too :)

  7. Great piece, Janice. I have my alpha/beta readers read my second draft, which is still a hot mess, and they do exactly what you've suggested--steer me in the right directions. I always offer to return the favor of reading their work, and follow through when they ask for help!