When I grow up, I want to be a writer. Lots of people think I already am one. They’re probably right. But I’m not yet the writer I want to be. Between here and there is a substantial journey, requiring immeasurable effort from me, but also the candid and generous assistance of what I’ll call alpha and beta readers.
Alpha readers are the first people other than the writer to see the writing. The writing shouldn’t ever be a rough draft, but it may still be a little rough. It could even be experimental, and the primary input the writer needs may be on such questions as: Does this work? Does it even make sense? Can you bear to read it?
Beta readers may address the same questions, but they read writing the writer thinks is nearly finished. Essential questions for fictional works may include: How eager were you to keep turning pages? If I lost you, where and how? Is there dialogue which doesn’t seem realistic or which strikes a false note? Are there points where you lost track of who was saying what, due to an insufficiency of he-saids and she-saids? Do the plot and the psychology of the characters make sense? Are there factual errors or internal inconsistencies? Are there details which irritated you or otherwise pushed you away, so you found yourself looking at the story from the outside, rather than experiencing it from the inside and with suspended disbelief? What made you laugh? What made you cry? What made you keep reading? Does the little boy sound like a little boy? Does the teenage girl sound like one? If there are cliches, are they at least freshly treated?
Alpha and beta readers alike may first be asked to read a few pages or chapters of a larger work, then invited to read a whole manuscript, if they’re still interested.
Readers of both kinds need to be content to be paid in the author’s gratitude — including printed acknowledgment, if the work reaches publication. The writer’s gratitude is real. And large. Large enough that the writer wants to return the favor, if an opportunity arises.
These readers must be reasonably candid — reasonably, because the work is a work in progress, and candid, because only candid responses, critical or otherwise, are useful.
When I was teaching Cornell freshman to write, their first two-page paper usually went back to them with more of my ink than theirs. They learned very quickly to revise carefully, to avoid common mistakes, and to polish their writing more than they were accustomed to doing. After that first paper, I spilled much less ink on their longer papers.
When I passed back that first paper, I had to get them past the trauma of seeing what I had done to their first college paper and into the practical world of writing, where there is plenty of room for improvement, and where candid critique is a blessing.
Before I passed their papers back, I made a little speech, noting, among other things, how my amazing high school English teacher, James Odell, spilled a lot more ink on the A papers, because he thought the writers of those were ready for the next level and interested in improving. “This sentence might work better if you changed the word order slightly . . .”
Before that speech, I put two or three pages from the beginning of an academic paper in front of them, had them read and reread the prose, then suggest improvements. They found plenty — and some of them were genuine improvements, even in my view.
Only after 20 or 30 minutes of that did I tell them what they were critiquing: This was my writing. It began as a 20-page paper I had written for a graduate seminar in Russian literature. It got an A, but after a rigorous peer review by three fellow graduate students who were themselves competent writers or better, after a critique of an early draft by a fine professor who thought her students wouldn’t be of much use unless they wrote well, and after substantial revisions in response. Thereafter, there was much more work to prepare the paper for submission to and presentation at an international scholarly conference, then more work to prepare it for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.
That was the paper they had studied and critiqued — the first few pages, that is — and to which these college freshmen had suggested some genuinely helpful improvements.
I told them I was a serious writer, a very good writer. But everybody’s writing can be improved, and a smart, conscientious college freshman can find some genuine improvements in a seasoned writer’s prose. The fact that they didn’t like some things in my writing and found better ways didn’t make me less of a writer; it just made my writing better. It didn’t anger me. It delighted me.
“Thank you,” I said. “Think about this when you see the papers I’m about to return to you.”
Many of those students, over the two years I taught there, told me that they had never had a writing teacher ask them to critique and improve his own writing. I was pleased that it meant something to them; I wanted the class to be like no writing class they had ever had.
By the way, every semester some earnest student would request that I find some other color than red for marking papers, because red looks like bloodshed. It does, I agreed, and told them I’d keep using red anyway.
Here’s why I belabor that story. Most of my alpha and beta readers are excellent writers or better. That’s an advantage, but not for the obvious reason. It’s because they care about good writing enough to help others with their writing. Even the readers who aren’t credible writers have the most important attribute: they are good, thoughtful, willing readers.
Being My Reader
I choose my alpha and beta readers to suit the project, which might be an essay or a novel. Often enough, I want to know if the writing is accessible to particular sorts and ages of people.
Here are some keys to being a helpful alpha or beta reader:
- Follow any instructions I give you in advance. I may ask you to read a chapter or two once, then response to a few specific questions, then read it again, and respond to other questions. I’m not testing you; you’re testing my writing. It may fail.
- Answer my specific questions — those supplied in advance and any that may come later. If you didn’t notice something or don’t know the answer, don’t make anything up just for the sake of having an answer. You might say that invalidates the data, which is already plenty subjective.
- Report anything that confuses you or jars you out of the story.
- If something that happens or is said seems unusual or unlikely, that’s not a problem. But if it seems impossible or unbelievable — or just too convenient — let me know.
- Don’t be shy about telling me what you think, even if it’s not positive. Especially if it’s not. I’m under no illusions that every reader — or even most readers — will love a particular piece of writing, even if it’s good. If you don’t, your thoughts may still be helpful.
- I’m pretty good at cleaning up typos, but if you find one you think I’ll miss, flag it.
- If something offends you, tell me — language, ideas, whatever. It may or may not be something I think I can change, but I always want to know. (If I didn’t value your opinions and responses, you wouldn’t be my alpha or beta reader.)
- If you don’t have time to read, tell me. That’s okay. I’m the one asking the favor here, and it’s not a particularly small one.
- Drafts are not for distribution. Respect that. Don’t share the password I give you to any page or file. If there’s someone you really want to read something, or who you think would be a good, enthusiastic alpha or beta reader, let me know.
I’ve done this sort of thing for other writers, so I know there are rewards beyond gratitude, at least sometimes. The reader gets to read something almost no one has ever seen before. It may be entertaining or informative. And there is interest in seeing the process, and satisfaction in being part of the process and helping to create and improve.
So thanks for considering being my reader.