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.
This 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.
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: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/50920-beta-reader-group
What 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 🙂