The Art of Picking Your Early Readers

Writers tend to have an eclectic mix of ego and insecurity. We must fundamentally believe in our own skill and vision to be willing to stand in front of the world and demand payment for the fruit of our imaginations. However, we also tend to invest so deeply in our stories that we take critique of the art as criticism of the artist. Both cases have the potential to blind us to the true quality of our work. In order to combat this tendency, I rely on both alpha and beta readers for the perspective to help me make my story the best it can be.

Alpha readers are given drafts in progress and are picked to help me troubleshoot in the moment. I need them for quick answers, to help me spot and overcome specific problems during the writing process. As such, my alpha readers tend to be either writers or subject matter experts who I know will be easy to get a hold of, and who will have the knowledge and experience to be of assistance.

Beta readers, on the other hand, are given completed drafts. While I rely on them to help me with my large scale editing, I am most interested in their real reader reactions to my characters, plot, and pacing. As such, I mainly look for non-writer friends both in my target audience and across a wide range of demographics. The key here is their reliability in the long term. I need to know that when I give them a draft they’ll read it and get back to me in a reasonable amount of time.

We’ve all heard horror stories of early drafts being leaked on the Internet, given to “a friend in the business,” or otherwise leaving the hands of the person the manuscript was entrusted to. As such, we must be sure of our early reader’s discretion and good sense before we bring them in on a project.

Secondly, I need to trust that my early readers will be honest with me. Someone who tries to coddle my feelings or boost my ego is unreliable at best, useless at worst. In fact, one of the best beta reading experiences I ever had involved three separate readers writing “I’m bored” in the margin of the same page. Now, that’s useful feedback!

Though I am secure in my skills as a writer, I sometimes find that drafting a novel is a manic-depressive experience. At times, I feel as if my book is the greatest thing ever written. At the other extreme, sometimes I can barely stand my own prose. The thing is, both extremes are equally blinding and damaging to my draft’s progress. I can’t make the improvements my book needs to be better unless I can accurately judge both its strengths and flaws. As such, I have found that having a reliable group of early readers whose discretion and honesty I can trust implicitly is an essential part of my writing process.


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