Stories don’t exist without writers – that much is a given. But the best stories are never a solo effort, even if they have only a single author. Other people will contribute, in big ways and small, and potentially fill many roles to help the author see the work through to completion. Three of the most prominent of these roles are:
Each does something different, but often in fandom-based writing spaces they’re used interchangeably in ways that can lead to confusion and a mismatch of expectation and performance between the author and the person helping them. As such, Duck Prints Press will be doing a series of three posts over the next few weeks that discusses each of these roles in detail. The purpose of these posts is
- to provide a definition of each role (alpha, editor, and beta)
- list examples of services a person in each role might provide for an author,
- provide insight into some appropriate ways for an author to interact with their helper, and
- to suggest some points that an author and their selected feedback provider should discuss before the alpha/editor/beta begins work, to ensure that both individuals have a positive experience and that the helper is providing the kind of information that the author is seeking.
Two things of note before we proceed:
- There is no single definition of these terms. We’re not claiming to be an authority or to say, “these are the correct definitions and all others are invalid.” Instead, our goal with these posts is to provide a common framework to help authors and individuals interested in helping them communicate about the nature of the roles to be undertaken, and to give information to help both writers and people who want to help writers understand what help is desired and how they can support each other.
- If an author hasn’t said “I’m looking for an alpha/editor/beta,” then it doesn’t matter what form of feedback you provide – unsolicited alphaing, editing or betaing is generally unwelcome and often unhelpful. Yes, some authors DO like and appreciate it. However, most don’t. Never use these posts as, “now that I know what alphaing is, I’ve read your story and now I’m alphaing for you!” That’s not how this works. Alphaing, betaing, and editing are always collaborative, undertaken between an author and feedback provider that they’ve entrusted to help them. If you’d like to give feedback to an author about something of theirs you’ve read…ask them if they want it! And respect their response! It’s really, truly that simple.
What is an Alpha Reader?
Alpha readers are generally one of the first “outsiders” brought in to support an author, and, depending on how the author approaches their process, may be sought before the story has been written. The primary roles of an alpha reader are to brainstorm with an author, flesh out the plot, fill plot holes, solve conundrums and issues that arise, and help the author get their vision of the story put down in concrete words. Alpha readers may be recruited short term, to help an author work through a specific issue, or they may accompany the author from conceptual inception through the entire first draft or beyond – some may even end up credited as co-authors, depending on how many ideas they end up contributing! In fandom spaces especially, alphas are often described as cheerleaders, and in many cases, they are explicitly asked not to provide extensive criticism and editing – alphas work with the understand that they have been brought in to help an author complete a first draft, and so the issues they help with are those more relevant to a work at an early stage of development.
Many people short-hand alphas by jokingly refer to them as “rubber duck debuggers,” inspired by the habit many computer programmers have of talking out a problem to an inanimate object until they figure out the solution. The idea is that alpha readers often don’t have to do anything – they just have to listen to the author until the author figures out the solution themselves! Sometimes, that’s truly all that an alpha will need to do, but don’t assume that’s all an alpha will do, and don’t play down the critical role that many alphas have played in the development of stories by giving timely, insightful feedback. An alpha can be invaluable in solving issues, seeing through thorny challenges, resolving points of uncertainty and confusion, and providing the author with the motivation, support and encouragement they need to see a first draft through to the end. Alphas are great, and are definitely not interchangeable with a rubber duck (however much we at Duck Prints Press love our rubber ducks).
Services/Responsibilities/Activities Associated with Alpha Reading:
- Meet with the author to establish the scope of help the author would like. This post includes a thorough list of tasks often undertaken by an alpha reader, but it’s unlikely that an alpha reader will do all of these tasks.
- Listen to and incorporate world building and character information provided by the author, and work to provide feedback that fits with what they’ve established.
- Read an author’s notes or outlines to get a general idea of what the author is trying to accomplish
- Discuss story elements with the author to whatever degree of detail and specificity the author requests.
- Offer insight and ideas to help solve problems that the author approaches you about, within the scope of what the author has said they’re willing to change or modify about their story.
- Cheerlead, praise, and support the author as they write their first draft.
- Indicate sentences, passages, and/or chapters that work especially well, and those that lacked adequate explication for the alpha to understand what took place.
- Point out issues with representation, areas where the author might need to do more research, use of racist or sexist tropes, and other aspects of the story that may be problematic. (Please remember to be careful of the difference between “this story contains problematic elements” and “this author is problematic.” Many authors intentionally playing with these elements.)
- Make sure to offer feedback on what is good and what you like!!
- If given a full first draft manuscript to review, post-reading you may be given a list of questions the author would like you to answer, indicating specific areas that the author would like more information about and/or help with.
- Very rarely, an author may ask for an alpha to edit for grammar, structure, word choice, and other technical elements. However, in “standard” definitions of alpha reading, these roles would be excluded.
- Be honest and objective! Don’t say something is good if you don’t think it is, and don’t say something is bad just because you didn’t like it.
- Understand that an author is never obligated to take an alpha’s advice!
Services/Responsibilities/Activities Associated with being an Author Working with an Alpha Reader:
- Have a clear idea of what an alpha reader will be asked to do before recruiting one – ideally, any request for an alpha should include this information! Don’t just say, “I’m looking for an alpha reader” and assume that anyone who responds will understand that to mean the same thing as you do. Instead, say, “I’m looking for an alpha reader to help me with…” and indicate the specific area(s) that you’re requesting support for.
- Don’t ask for feedback if you’re not prepared to be given feedback. Understand that requesting an alpha may mean opening yourself up to criticism; never forget that you invited them, so respect them and appreciate them. Don’t ask someone to alpha for you if you don’t respect their opinions and assessments.
- Communicate your expectations and needs clearly.
- Listen to the alpha reader and take their advice under consideration.
- Indicate when you’ve reached a decision, so the alpha reader doesn’t continue to focus on a point that has been resolved.
- Be kind and polite, even if ultimately you reject the alpha’s recommendations.
- Ask clear questions directly related to what you’re trying to find out about what works and doesn’t work in your manuscript. Don’t try to be vague or passive to try to “get at” if something worked; it’s better to be honest and straightforward.
- Employ multiple alphas to get different viewpoints.
- Do not take criticism of the work as criticism of you as an author and person.
- Respect the alpha reader’s boundaries.
- Understand that the alpha is never required to agree with you, and may ultimately dislike your work.
Communication is critical! If both parties aren’t clear about their expectations and responsibilities, how can they effectively work together? It’s also critical to set and maintain boundaries. An alpha doesn’t agree to be “on call” 24/7. An author doesn’t agree to hear endless criticism of their ideas. An alpha should never be subjected to material that they’ve indicated may trigger them. An author should never be subjected to an alpha harping on a pet idea that the author has already indicated they don’t wish to use. If the relationship isn’t working for both individuals, it should be terminated. Furthermore, just because the relationship doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean either individual is “bad” at fulfilling their role; often, it’s simply a mismatch in communication and work styles. And that’s okay! Don’t bad mouth someone you failed to work effectively with…but also, don’t feel you need to keep working with them!
Suggested Questions an Alpha Reader and Author Should Discuss Before Working Together:
Not all of these will be relevant to every author/alpha relationship, but they’re worth being aware of!
- Will the alpha reader be paid for their help? This is generally not relevant in fan spaces, but may be if the alpha is working on an original work destined for publication.
- Will the alpha reader be credited when the final product is made public?
- Will the alpha reader be expected to keep silent about what they’ve read, or perhaps even sign a Non-Disclosure agreement or other form of contract?
- When is the alpha usually available? When is the author usually available? Will meetings be held regularly on a schedule, as-needed, or elsewise?
- What software and/or accounts will the alpha be expected to use? For example: a specific word program, a gmail account, Discord, etc.
- How will the author and alpha communicate primarily? For example, by chat program, by e-mail, by telephone, etc.
- Is the alpha required to be familiar with other works in the author’s oeuvre?
- Is there any potentially triggering material in the work that the alpha should be made aware of?
- Does the alpha have any unusual triggers or squicks that the author should be aware of?
- At what stage of the project is the alpha reader being invited in – conceptualization? Writing? Completed first draft?
- What specific aspect(s) of the book is the author looking for feedback on? The plot? The characters? The pacing? If a specific line landed as intended? Is the dialog catchy? Is the world-building thorough?
- Will the alpha reader be providing long-term help (eg, for the entire time an author is writing the first draft of a novel) or short-term help (eg, an author has gotten stuck at a specific point and wants to discuss that only with someone else)?
- Is the author looking for someone to primarily listen to them and let them work it out on their own?
- What are the main themes/tropes/elements/etc. the author hopes to communicate? It’s often best to discuss this after the alpha has read the work, so the author can see if they’ve succeeded, but it depends on when in the process the alpha has been brought on. If the alpha is helping develop plot and concept, it will be important for the alpha to understand upfront what the author is trying to accomplish.
- Is the alpha familiar with areas relevant to what the author is writing? For example, if the story is fanfiction, is the alpha familiar with the franchise? If the story is in a specific genre, is the alpha acquainted with the tropes of that genre? If the story is in a specific setting – especially if it’s a setting with a high degree of technical specificity – is the alpha able to offer insight and knowledge to support accurately portraying that setting?
- Does the author want criticism at this stage? (Usually, inviting an alpha implies the answer to this is yes, but don’t assume!)
- Does the author want editing done? (Usually, inviting an alpha implies the answer to this is no, but don’t assume!)
- Are there aspects of the story the author feels are “set in stone?” Are there aspects the author doesn’t mind changing, or would even prefer to change?
- Is the alpha welcome to provide suggestions for developments outside the framework of storyline and world building provided by the author? For example, would the author be open to having the alpha say, “maybe you should create a new character to fill this role,” or, “maybe you should change the entire ending,” or would they prefer that the alpha work with the plot, characters, pacing, etc., elements that the author has already created?
- Check in throughout the process – Is the way I’m doing this working for you? Is this feedback helpful? Are my responses as the author enabling you to do your work as an alpha? Do we need to change anything to ensure that this is providing the kinds of support that the author has requested? Talk to each other! You’re in this together. It’s okay if things need to be changed (in the story, in the relationship, in the communication style, you name it) – change them until you find a way to collaborate that works best for both parties.
You’ll see the common theme in all this advice is that the key to a successful alpha/author relationship is communication. Authors: be clear and honest about your project and your needs. Alphas: be clear and honest about your assessments and suggestions. Work together, not in opposition. Now, go forth and write things, and read things, and make amazing stories!
We expect part two of this series – What is an Editor? – to come out next week (5/23/21) and part three of this series – What is a Beta Reader? – to come out the week after (5/30/21). Depending on interest and the success of this series, we may also consider making posts for other roles (for example, sensitivity readers, language pickers, culture pickers, subject experts, etc.). We’ll update this post with links as additional posts are published.