Guest Post: Alpha Readers

This week’s guest poster is rather special, well he is to me. Today’s poster is my own partner, who came up with a topic that I think is certainly important. So I hope you enjoy it

Jolly Roger

Alf, a Reed, Errs by Dr. Dread Pirate

As Ari’s alpha reader I’ve been asked to write a guest post about my thoughts on alpha reading. (Actually, I sort of insisted as I was bored and wanted something to do.)

Obviously there’s no single correct way to read and give feedback on a writer’s work (just as there’s no one method for writing); what follows are simply some things I’ve learnt during my forays into the minefield that is alpha reading.


The hard­-won lessons I’d like to share cover the topics:
– Should you be an alpha reader?
– What alpha reading is not
– What alpha reading is
– How to alpha read
– Giving feedback (or, “Being forced to poke the bear”)

Should You be an Alpha Reader?

An alpha reader is simply the first person to read an author’s manuscript and provide them with feedback from a reader’s perspective. For a writer, choosing an alpha reader is a big deal. Being creative is something inherent to all humans. Sharing the results of that creativity, however, can be incredibly difficult, to which any writer, artist or musician will attest. What we create is a piece of ourselves, it comes from the most private, deep and personal space within us. When we share with another person, something that we have created, we instantly put ourselves at their mercy. The vulnerability experienced when doing so is difficult to overstate.

Given this inherent vulnerability, most writers will want their alpha reader to be someone close to them, someone they trust: a partner, a good friend, or a family member. It’s hugely flattering for someone to ask you to be the first to critique their work, and that someone is usually very close to you. This is a problem. The ideal alpha reader needs to be patient, willing to give up a substantial amount of their time, able to provide feedback in the right way (see below) and, perhaps most importantly, they need to be an avid reader. Ideally, not only will they love to read, but their genre of choice should coincide with the genre of the manuscript they’re reviewing.

If this doesn’t sound like you, then you shouldn’t be an alpha reader. If you’re only willing to have a cursory skim of the manuscript; if you’re not willing to give up a lot of time to read and give feedback (often reading the same manuscript many times, at least once for each draft); if you’re not a big reader, or if you do read but aren’t a fan of the genre you’re being asked to alpha read, then you need to decline. The author may be upset, and you may feel guilty, but it’s better for them in the long run. Just make sure you explain your reasons for declining, and offer to be a beta reader instead! You get to read a more polished version, you’ll typically be one of several beta readers so there’s less pressure, and you’ll show that it’s not that you don’t want to help, but you want to help in the best way you can.

What Alpha Reading is Not

Alpha reading is not proof­reading. An alpha reader does not just read the manuscript as if it’s a finished draft, highlighting spelling and grammatical errors, or small inconsistencies in dialogue and plot. These are the jobs of beta readers.

Alpha reading is not like reviewing a finished book. An alpha reader doesn’t read through the manuscript once and say, “four out of five, the story was good, I didn’t like this character, but the protagonist was cool. Good job!” Again, this falls under beta reading (though a good beta reader will go into much more depth than this).

Alpha reading is not a one­-off. Expect to read the book a lot. A lot. You don’t read it once, give feedback, then it’s finished. You read it, feed back, read the next draft, feed back, and so on ad nauseam. You may not even read the whole book in one go for a while. It all depends on the writer. They may want you to read a few chapters at a time, or even just one chapter at a time (maybe not even in the right order). Don’t expect it to be straightforward!

Alpha reading is not co­authoring. While there are aspects of the alpha reading process that may involve giving feedback and ideas to the writer, which they may take on board and use to amend or shape the plot or character development, it’s not your job to hijack the story and try to write it the way you want it to be written.

What Alpha Reading is

Alpha reading is pain in the ass. Seriously.

“Hey would you like to read a not­quite­finished story, that hasn’t been proof­read yet so it comes with lots of spelling mistakes, then tell me what you think, then deal with me getting upset and defensive, then try to calm me down, then do it another twenty times?”

I’d freaking love to, honey.

Alpha reading is awesome. Seriously.

If you’re fortunate to be the alpha reader for a talented writer with a great story and relatable characters (as I am), then you get to read the story before anyone else. Imagine your favourite author approaching you and saying:

“I’ve just written a new book, would you like to be the first to read it?”

Hell yes I would!

How to Alpha Read

As an alpha reader you have to learn to read like a writer and like a reader at the same time. This is not easy.

I think of writing a book (not that I know crap all about it) as being comprised of three levels: spelling and grammar etc; the style of the writing; the plot/story/characters.

Here’s the problem. Writers work in the opposite direction to readers (the devious fiends). A writer starts with an overall idea for a story, puts it down using their own writing style, then finishes up by proof­reading the spelling and punctuation and so on.

Readers, however, experience a book from the bottom up. When you pick up a novel, or read a blog, you first notice if the writing’s correct: punctuation which makes sense and helps to define the writer’s voice, words spelled correctly, non­jarring grammar etc Assuming it is, you then appreciate the quality of the writing. If this is solid – it’s dynamic, makes interesting use of literary devices, doesn’t repeat the same few adjectives and adverbs over and over again – then you’re able to relax, get to know the characters and slowly take in the story.

As an alpha reader, you have to work in the same direction as the writer, but from a reader’s perspective. This takes some getting used to. Essentially you’re given a novel, the spelling and grammar will not be solid and the writing style may not always flow perfectly, but you need to ignore this for now, and just focus on the characters and the story.

Imagine trying to watch a movie with the audio slightly but noticeably out of sync, and the screen flickering every few seconds. You’re job is to ignore these minor problems, and focus on the plot and the acting, giving feedback to the director.

When the story has been hammered out and it’s all good, which can take several drafts and therefore several reads, you start again, except this time you focus on the quality of the writing. This stage and the previous stage can be more or less important relative to one another, again depending on the writer. Had you been Marcel Proust’s or Mervyn Peake’s alpha reader, or if you happen to be alpha reading a prose poem, the quality of the writing is perhaps more crucial than the story itself. For most novels, though, the story is of prime importance. Even so, the quality and flow of the writing, the “writer’s voice” is what separates a good book from a great book from an amazing book. In my humble opinion, a simple story told well beats a brilliant story told poorly. Again though, it depends on the writer you’re alpha reading for.

This is the general idea behind alpha reading: story first, then writing style, then an initial proof­read. Once complete, you pass things on to the beta readers to make some final comments (but be prepared to read the final draft again!) As ever, it’s up to the writer. One of the most important things you can do when you start alpha reading is to ask the writer exactly what they want from this particular reading. Are they asking you to focus on a specific theme or particular character, or are they concerned about their use of dialogue? Do they want your impressions of the whole? If you know what they want when you start, it’ll be less painful for all involved.

One very important tip: questions. Questions are more useful than statements. Saying “this bit, bla bla bla” is much less useful to the writer than, “in this bit, why did bla bla bla?”

Bear­Poking

The most dangerous part of the whole process. Get yourself some gauntlets and a surfeit of chocolate to tame the beast you’ll be dealing with at this stage.

You’ve found out what the writer wants, you’ve read through the manuscript carefully, making copious notes. Now you feed this back… Remember vulnerability? Yea. Well now you get to go to that vulnerable person and tell them, in pain­staking detail, everything you thought was wrong and needs improving with that thing they’re really proud of and which is inextricably linked to their own self­-esteem. Good luck.

The mantra for this whole post is, “it depends on the writer,” and this holds true here. They may prefer written feedback, as being told verbally might be too confrontational or make them too self­-conscious. They may have a tough hide and just want a succinct list of points, given quickly and clearly, that they can take away and work on.

Or they may be like Ari. They may want to do it in person, in the form of a discussion, and they may be just a little on the defensive side (she’s not looking! Okay, they can be crazy defensive and stressed at the very thought of ANY criticism! Seriously, writer’s are freaking nutbags man.) This is difficult to deal with. It’s also, in my experience, the general attitude of creative people. It’s not arrogance, definitely not “how dare you criticise me, you are not fit to dust my novels’ covers!” It’s that they’re self­-conscious; they worry. It’s really a fear that this thing they’ve been working on and pouring themselves into isn’t going to be any good. Bear this in mind. Be nice!

The simplest advice for feeding back is to be positive, and make sure all feedback’s constructive. Saying, “this bit was crap” is not only going to upset them, it’s utterly useless. Saying,

“this bit was okay, but I didn’t think that this character was convincing acting like this, what about trying bla bla bla? That might fit in better based on that thing that happened earlier in the book”

basically gives the same message, but it’s positive, it provides another idea and it shows you’ve really read and thought about the story in depth. Reading in depth and really thinking about the story is what alpha reading’s all about.

And as mentioned earlier, questions. Questions are much easier for a sensitive creative to respond to than a flat statement. Questions require answers, coming up with answers means thinking, means being creative. A creative person can no more sit passively listening to a series of statements you make than a mushroom can play the ukulele. But ask an intelligent question, and watch them light up as they try to answer it.

Okay, that’s it. I have no idea how to end this post in a satisfying and compelling way, so I’ll just ask you to imagine how the world would be different if sunlight was heavy and air was as thick as water, and then quietly slip away.

~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~

I am fortunate that my Alpha Reader is so perceptive and knows me well enough to deal with my creative meltdowns (of which there are many).

He is completely right (the bastard) about my issue when dealing with criticism. I blame it on my anxiety and while I always do accept his comments and he has some cracking ideas for helping me out of holes, it is instinctive to get relentlessly defensive when he first makes a comment.

It is why he’s my alpha reader – he can take it, he knows how to calm me down. After all the biggest issues usually come at this time. So beta readers get the less crazy version of me and everyone is happy…. survives. 🙂

I’ll be back on Friday with a post… hopefully. If you enjoy reading any of these posts, consider following this blog. I post (mostly) regularly and I have guest posters on to share their own thoughts and experiences.

Happy writing

Ari

NB: Photo purchased from depositphotos.com (supporting other creatives)

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