Sending your manuscript out for review is a bit like sending your child to school for the first time. This beautiful but fragile thing, once a part of you, is going out into the cold cruel world. In both cases, you need to wait until the time is right. Your first draft is where you figure out who your characters are and what your story’s about. It’s also the time when you shouldn’t let anyone else see it! Get to know your story better before you start asking for other people’s opinions. In other words, write the second draft before you seek feedback.

T is hard for writers. We tend to be an insecure lot, and crave reassuring feedback. But if you know the manuscript has issues (and it will), then you’re wasting everyone’s time. Once you’ve got it to the stage where you think you know what you’re doing, it’s time to look for readers.

Alpha readers and beta readers

Alpha readers are the very first people to look at your manuscript. You trust them with your unpolished gem. They might read it several times as you struggle through the rewriting process. They are patient and giving. Often they are writers too, and you can hopefully return the favour. Alpha readers deserve all your gratitude … thanks Crafty Theatre, you’re brilliant and I appreciate your help!

Beta readers come in later. That is, once you’ve got your manuscript to a stage where you think it’s ready to submit. You need a fresh pair of eyes, from someone who hasn’t witnessed the plethora of drafts that led to this version. Unlike alpha readers, beta readers are likely to only read your manuscript once. If they have a manuscript too, you’ll probably be expected to read theirs.

Finding readers

Alpha readers are usually people you know, especially if you’re a beginner. Family members and close friends tend to be the ones we turn to first. That’s okay, but keep in mind the feedback you get might not be completely honest. They might be reluctant to offend. Especially partners who fear sleeping on the couch.

The ideal is to know people that are avid readers or writers themselves. Joining a writing group or attending workshops can help you meet such people. If you’re writing for young children and know a friendly teacher, ask them to read it to their class to gauge the kids’ reactions.

Beta readers may also be people that you know, but it’s common to use strangers. This has advantages. They won’t worry as much about hurting your feelings, and they are more likely to be honest. Again, you can meet them in writing groups and workshops. You can also find them online. Goodreads, for example, has a beta reading group that anyone can join: makes a good reader?

First, you want honesty. All right, you might not want it … but you need it. Second, look for someone who reads a lot. They don’t have to be writers, but they need to be keen readers. Unless, of course, you’re writing for kids that are reluctant readers. In which case, find someone that hates reading!

Most of all, a good reader is constructive. Someone who points out the story’s flaws in a productive and helpful way. Not all readers are like that, however. Some can be destructive and bitter. Avoid them at all costs.

So how do you know whether a reader is right for you? There’s nothing wrong with testing them out. Ask them to read a sample that you know needs work. If they think it’s all wonderful (or all dreadful), you might need to hunt around some more.

What can you expect of readers?

Readers are just that – readers. They are not editors or proof readers. You can’t expect them to fix your grammar and spelling mistakes, or provide you with a professional structural report. What you basically want is someone to say whether your story works or not.

It helps if you can give them some guidance – instructions as to what it actually is you are asking them to do. That’ll be the subject of a future post, where I’ll also look at what you should do with the feedback.

In the meantime …

Have you ever asked anyone to look at your manuscript? How did you pick your reader? Let me know in the comments box 🙂

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17 thoughts on “Feedback for your fiction: finding the right readers

  1. Hi Stella,
    When choosing your alpha reader I think it’s important to know the genre you are writing for and choose someone who loves to read that genre. It’s no use giving your literary novel to a self-help/ new age fan or your YA fantasy to a political thriller fan.

    For the alpha reader there rewards, particularly if the alpha reader is also a writer. For us, we are forced to think about what makes a really good story. When we are reading the genre we love we have the benefit of really enjoying and learning from the experience.

    1. Stella says:

      Very good points – thanks for adding them. It’s good to know this process helps everyone involved!

  2. Great post, Stella, since readers are the most important people for a writer. I agree with crafty theater about finding readers who know the genre you are writing for. And I definitely agree with you on waiting for the second draft before sharing and asking for critique. Often a writing group is a good place to start as the members are likely to be willing to read your prose. In order to keep a writing group active it is good if the members are at different stages in their writing. I still attend the meetings even when I don’t have anything ready for critique. I read other members’ material and their creative journey feeds mine. So far the seven members of my group have been my first readers.
    For my new work (still in its first draft stage) I will probably seek other readers as well. Maybe I’ll ask you!

    1. Stella says:

      Thanks Evelyne, I’m honoured to be considered!

  3. I especially agree with Stella’s advice that the time to submit a manuscript for reading by another is after the second draft. Before then, you have not cemented the story enough … At which point someone else’s comment can misshape the clayey piece.

    Crafty Theatre also makes a valid point that the alpha reader should be familiar with the story’s genre. I agree. Otherwise the feedback given would be hardly valuable. It would also not be productive towards sound story development.

    In the case of beta readers, however, genre familiarity is far less important. In fact, a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ could be quite handy at that stage.

    Steven Fernandez

    1. Stella says:

      Thanks Steven. It’s good to know others think along the same lines.

    2. Steven, is there a type of person you would submit your second draft to I.e, a manuscript assessor, someone who has experience editing? Or would you go for another reader or writer or published author/writer?

      1. Crafty Theatre, I don’t think there is a on size-fits-all answer to the beta reader question. In my case, much would depend on how confident I am that the story is market-ready at that point. (Perhaps I should clarify here that when I declare I have a “second” draft, the manuscript is actually composed of chapters that have been individually drafted as many as five times.)

        If I am highly confident, I would opt for an editor-type beta reader, rather than another writer. Other writers may think that is a rather bold move, but I am not one to make judgement calls spuriously.

        My proposal, earlier, that a reader of a different genrie may be handy at the beta phase stems from the general principle that mastermind networks should be composed of people of quite varied occupations and backgrounds. As this variety can provide insights to one’s particular challenge that would not be availble if the group were entirely members of related occupations. So, if you apply this philosophy to the beta reader question, then getting a reader of a quite different genre makes simple sense.

        Steven Fernandez

  4. Susi Lovell says:

    That’s an interesting question from crafty theatre about whether to submit your second draft to another reader or writer/published writer. At second draft stage, I’d keep with another writer/published writer because I’m still looking for input about potentially interesting threads or plot/character angles. Often I find another writer will pick up a point of view or structural problem at that stage. I look for editing further along as I don’t want to close off possibilities too soon. Maybe this is why I’m such a slow writer! Thanks for the post, Stella.

    1. Stella says:

      That’s a very good point about closing off possibilities too soon. I suspect I’ve just done that with one of my stories! Thank you!!

    2. That makes a lot of sense.

    3. Stephen and Susi, you both make good pts. It comes down to confidence in what you’ve written.
      Thanks Stella for a thought provoking post ( and the plug!)

  5. Stella says:

    It’s great to see you all connecting with each other! That’s my idea of a successful post – thanks guys 🙂

  6. sjoycarlson says:

    Great advice thanks!

    1. Stella says:

      You’re welcome! Thanks for visiting my blog – yours is looking good 🙂

      1. sjoycarlson says:

        Thanks! Just started and trying to get it all figured out.

      2. Stella says:

        It took me a while to get into the swing. You’re doing a good job so far!

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