The Writing Zone: Stage 6 - Alpha Readers
One aspect of writing a book that I'm actually looking forward to is what comes after I've conducted my rounds of self-editing and worked with an editor to get a round of professional feedback on my work. After you've gone through the editing process - you've knocked out typos, fixed grammatical errors, and probably found a paragraph or three that required some restructuring to make it more coherent. You may have also make some character or plot changes.
After all of that work, there's still one critical aspect of the creation process that cannot be ignored: Feedback from others on the story itself.
Let's face facts: You are only one person, and you're also the creator of your own work which could result in some amount of bias as you review your words for the thousandth time. Is your work perfect? Of course it is! However, will your future readers view it in the same light?
This is where the concept of beta readers comes into play. Beta readers are people that read your manuscript after it's been completed, but before it is submitted for publication. The intention is that they would read your creation, providing candid feedback on their experience without the influence that comes from, well, being you. The notes they provide will serve you well as you'll know which parts of your plot to tighten, characters to further flesh out, redundant or confusing lines or dialogue to correct, and so on. In other words, they are going to help catch all the story-related issues (as opposed to grammatical issues, though they may find those, too, if they are sticklers for that sort of thing) that you may have missed during your editing process.
The idea of recruiting a few or dozens of people to review one's manuscript is not new. However, bringing in some people to read your work while you're still writing it?
Welcome to the world of alpha readers - people that you invite on your journey towards the completion of your manuscript or during your earliest revisions. And as a quick disclaimer, I officially have two alpha readers on my team that I've shared every chapter of my book as they were completed. Yup, they got the raw information, complete with all the risks that entails.
Alpha vs Beta: A Comparison
Why would you want to work with alpha readers? What are the risks with bringing in someone (or even a few people) to read your unpolished gem of a manuscript?
It is worth mentioning up front that utilizing alpha readers is not for everyone. It takes a lot of courage, I believe, to open up what is almost always a personal and emotional experience to a group of beta readers as it is - to open yourself to their constructive feedback, both positive and negative. Some writers just don't want to expose their creation when it's still very much in its infancy, before any serious editing is applied - and that's totally okay. I will also say that although having beta readers is practically required - you WANT to make sure your book connects with as many people as possible, right? - the need for alpha readers isn't so critical. In fact, it can be considered to be optional.
Alpha readers are great to have if you appreciate active feedback as you create your book. You may share a chapter the moment it's completed, or you may wait until you're at least two or three chapters ahead before you share - an option some take because it allows you some additional space for making changes to unshared chapters. Getting feedback as you write can be a source for continued motivation, as well as a great way to sense how your alphas are interpreting your story.
They can catch issues with your plot before you dig yourself into a hole. One of the great benefits of an Alpha is that they are reading your work almost as fast as you're writing, which gives them the unique position to make sure you don't deviate too much from a core plot point, or remind you of that sub-plot you introduced ten chapters ago but hasn't resurfaced in any meaningful way since. Nothing is worse than having to potentially rewrite a good chunk of your book because you failed to address a key event, character interactions, or climax and take it to a logical conclusion or nail-biting cliffhanger.
From a marketing standpoint, Alphas can be considered your first book fans and promoters. Odds are good that anyone that you brought on as an Alpha will stick around for the long-haul - as a result of this longer-term relationship when compared to beta reader participation, their investment in you and your creation will almost certainly result in a guaranteed - if not small - initial fanbase that could help inform others of your creation when it is published.
A big difference between Alphas and Betas are the kind of questions you ask of your readers - that is, you'll want to stay away from the long lists of questions that you may share with a beta reader (many examples of this can be found with a quick Google search) and give a very narrow, focused set of questions for your Alphas. For example:
- Does anything feel like it was missing, or not developed enough?
- Were there sections of the story that were not needed or didn't help advance the plot?
- Any dialogue or narrative that was confusing or hard to understand?
- What did you find really cool or enjoyable?
You don't want grammatical critiques from an Alpha, nor are you asking for questions surrounding sentence structure or syntax. They may stumble upon such issues and can choose to point them out, but their primary goal is to provide continuous feedback on the story - any technical issues related to grammar will be tackled during your formal editing phase.
Getting your work published, whether its taking the self-publication route or the more traditional path of working with an agent and a publishing house, is one helluva adventure, but it is never something that you complete alone. Okay, you could do it alone, but what kind of work would that ultimately produce, and would others want to read your creation if the only person that vetted it was its author? Most creative works, from books to video games, have a dedicated phase in their creation cycle where others are brought in to review said work and help iron out the kinks that would turn your creation into a finely polished gem.
Alpha readers are not a requirement to the creation of a successful novel, but for those that appreciate a greater level of feedback on their work, bringing on an Alpha is a good path to take - a path that can lead to a tighter story before finishing your novel.