Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Do you need an alpha reader? A person who can give you honest, immediate feedback about your book while it’s still being written? At some point in writing your book, the answer is going to be ‘yes’, but that doesn’t mean you should be scrolling through your contacts, looking for someone who fits the bill. First, you have to ask the real question: ‘Do I need an alpha reader now?’
We’ve talked before about the value of beta readers, but a beta test takes place right before a product is launched. It’s common for authors to need feedback way before that point and, because the book is still being written, they need a different kind of feedback. Alpha feedback is less definitive than beta feedback, and often given over a longer period of time. An alpha reader may see many different versions of the book, and their feedback needs to evolve alongside your manuscript. Beta readers give you an idea of final reader experience, but alpha readers are closer to a critic/confidante hybrid.Your alpha reader’s feedback needs to evolve with your manuscript.Click To Tweet
My dad is perhaps one of the most critical people I know, which for me makes him my ideal alpha reader. Unlike the heart-in-the-right-place deluded parents of woefully untalented American Idol contestants, I trust me dad to give me honest – but not unkind – feedback about my work. That’s not to say he won’t award praise where praise is due, but I know that the praise is all the more earned when it comes from him.
Knowing your alpha reader can be important, because it gives you the ability to filter (and sometimes even decipher) their feedback. As much as you may need another perspective, it can be dangerous for a project if you start listening to outside voices too early. So, before you email that precious first draft to your alpha reader with the trepidation of a parent entrusting their first-born to a teenage babysitter, ask yourself these key questions first.
Is my manuscript ready for feedback?
Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, one of my best friends and I worked on a co-written novel. We took the project very seriously, too, planning elaborate story arcs, divvying out chapters to one another, and sketching endless character designs and world maps. Kids can be cruel, even if they’re your friends, and so I was very nervous about selecting an alpha reader. Looking back, I realize that, in fact, I was being the cruel one. My ‘lucky’ selection was the recipient of about one hundred printed pages of randomly ordered chapters, barely stapled together properly.
The moral here – aside from capitalizing on your awkward teen years for advice – is that if your manuscript isn’t in a fit state for feedback, it’s probably not worth seeking it out yet. It could be that your manuscript is as incoherently messy as mine was, or it could be that it’s still at a tentative point where criticism may impact negatively on its development. Kind of like opening the oven door prematurely when you’re baking a soufflé.Your book is a soufflé. Open the oven door too early, even for advice, and it may collapse.Click To Tweet
By ‘tentative’, I mean that you could still be working out the conceptual details of your story, or perhaps what your story even is. Even if you’re the kind of writer who prefers to plan meticulously in advance of starting a manuscript, the process of actually writing can take your plot or characters in directions you never expected them to go. There’s an organic magic to this process that external interference could disrupt, especially if you’re prone to being too influenced by the opinions of others.
Do I need specific feedback?
There are ways to be a ‘good’ alpha reader and, similarly, ways to be a ‘good’ author. Identifying the kind of criticism you want to receive on your work as clearly as possible is one way to be the latter. It’s fine if you’re just looking for a general overview, but if you can’t think of a specific area you need feedback on, then that might be an indication that you don’t need an alpha reader just yet.
Think about whether or not you need feedback on any of these areas at the moment:
- Plot holes,
- Underdeveloped plot/subplots or characters,
- Originality of ideas,
- Story structure.
Am I stuck?
While you shouldn’t expect an alpha reader to write or rewrite anything for you, a second opinion may be able to help unclog any writer’s block you might be experiencing. I find that my initial story ideas come to me organically in bursts, but they can only fuel my writing for so long. Once they burn out, I often feel as if I’ve rowed out confidently into uncharted waters only to lose one of my paddles halfway through the journey. At that point, a fresh pair of eyes can often help to move things along again.
An alpha reader might be able to spot missed opportunities in the story or give you different interpretations of characters and their motivations that get your ideas flowing again. Or find that missing paddle, if we’re still using my flimsy rowing analogy. (Sidebar: I’ve never rowed before. Is it easy to lose a paddle?)
Do I need encouragement?
I love to write… except when I don’t. I’m sure most writers must experience this love/hate relationship with their craft. There are days when sometimes even the thing you love to do the most feels like a chore. It could be that you’re just not ‘feeling it’. It could be that there’s a particular chapter that you’re not that keen on writing. It could be that you’ve got rewrites that desperately need doing but you keep putting them off. Whatever the job is, you just keep trying to avoid it for as long as possible.
If you feel that you’re running out of steam, it can be hard to be disciplined and get the work done. During times like these, one of the most commonly suggested remedies is to take a break from writing altogether in the hope that inspiration will return to you when you stop trying to force it. It’s similar to the idea that you’ll only ever find your lost car keys when you stop looking for them.Alpha feedback can be a great way to structure and drive the writing process. Click To Tweet
But, have you also ever considered using feedback to get your writing mojo back? Some authors prefer to wait until a manuscript has been drafted in full before they use an alpha reader, but others find that having a steady stream of comments coming in as they go helps the writing process remain similarly steady. Sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal, for instance, is a proponent of the latter – using a private online community of alpha readers to give her chapter-by-chapter critiques on her latest manuscripts as she writes them. “It works as a carrot,” she explains on her blog. “Knowing that I get to post and get immediate pats on the back, will sometimes push me to finish a chapter that I’m otherwise stalling on.”
Of course the downside to this (which Kowal also touches upon) is that your alpha reader will have a segmented impression of the story, meaning you would then require a beta reader to read your finished manuscript in order to give you an accurate critique of the overall pacing. In fact, alpha readers will almost certainly know your book too intimately to also act as beta readers. By roping someone in during the early stages of writing, you effectively nullify their ability to provide help at a later stage. Like managing any resource, you’ll have to think long and hard about when you want to ‘spend’ that help.
Make a judgement call
An alpha reader can be a source of reassurance, criticism, motivation and inspiration, but ultimately their feedback is, of course, entirely subjective – as is whether you need it. On the one hand, if any/all of the questions above struck a chord with you, you might benefit from seeking out an alpha reader. On the other, if you’re feeling confident that things are running smoothly, or that it’s simply too early in your manuscript’s development for proper feedback, you probably won’t benefit just yet.
Ultimately, no-one knows your working process better than you, so it’s up to you to make a judgement call about whether or not feedback will be helpful, hindering or just plan redundant. Let me know your alpha reader opinions in the comments, or for more on getting feedback on your writing, you can check out Your Complete Guide To Getting Useful Criticism and Everything You Need To Know About Working With Beta Readers.