This is the last step on drafting. In the previous step, I talked about ways to make your draft deep, complex, and easy to traverse. This week I will discuss the final component to the drafting phase, an element that helps you see outside yourself.
In video game design, the development team will have alpha testers who work with the things they are producing to give them ideas as they go along. Maybe they’re making a troll for a castle attack level and they want to see if the way they’ve put it in looks believable. Whatever it is the developers want tested, the alpha testers are often aware of how things are being developed and what flaws to look for since they work closely with the development team and may have some background in the development process. The developers aren’t expecting perfect reports either. They have some ideas where they have gone wrong, but recognize things work efficiently when they are critiqued by individuals who aren’t saturated by the development process.
Take the analogy and extend it to alpha readers. While you write, you are immersed in your prose. You’re unfolding your draft, going over your frames, leaving “finished” pieces behind. Maybe something’s not quite working, but you know better than to stop and obsess over it (as we discussed two weeks ago). So, you get a few critical readers who agree not to expect perfection. You tell them not to worry about typos and grammar but instead to look at faulty constructions. Maybe a sentence doesn’t quite fit. Maybe a character doesn’t talk properly at one point. Maybe a paragraph about this picturesque hill you decide to carry on about stops the narrative and doesn’t have the reflective effect you thought it did.
These are all things someone else who’s not wrapped up in the same intense creative process can point out. However, they’re also things someone who has a fair bit of knowledge in storytelling would notice; you want your alpha readers to give you useful information that will help not only with revision, but with ideas for continued development.
These readers can be anywhere from writing friends who agree to do an exchange (also known as critique partners) to a content development editor who works with you as you go. You might not even use alpha readers, but instead use beta readers after you’re finished. However, note that the benefit of feedback while you’re writing can be useful to push your manuscript to a greater edge, and prevent the many checkmates that lurk along the way.
Some writers do not like to let anyone read their work while they’re writing. Others do and end up never getting to the end because they’re forever changing things, or they get exasperated because the comments they receive make them think it’s just not going to work out. Whatever the case, alpha readers can be as detrimental to your writing process as they can be beneficial if you don’t take care both in how you choose them and in how you interact with them and their comments.
First and foremost, remember (and this goes all the way to the final editing stage) you are the sole authority on your story and on what you want to do. Your alpha readers, no matter how skilled they are, are not you, and this is not their story. Their comments serve as an opportunity for you to engage your story once again from a different angle, to question your intentions and, if you missed something, to go in and discover it (and if you haven’t, then to appreciate all the more why you did what you did and how that makes your story well-told).
I have several alpha readers, and I am grateful for their feedback. That said, when I receive a chapter back, I only look over it to get an overall sense of the comments, and in particular to see how certain trouble spots fared. In fact, I will often prompt my alpha readers before sending a given passage what sort of things I’m struggling with. But I don’t touch any of the comments or alter my story one bit after I receive them, unless one of the comments makes me aware of something I missed. It’s important, when you receive your alpha reader feedback, to file it away and prioritize the information. For example, if there is a chapter you know just didn’t work out, you might look at your alpha reader comment to see if it sparks an idea for how to resolve it. If there’s a comment about a passage being confusing and you don’t know why, leave it be and keep it in mind as you write, but plan to go back and think more about it during revision.
The other thing to watch out for is how you choose your alpha readers. If you are an epic fantasy writer and your alpha reader loves spy novels and hates detailed writing, then you might not want to have them as your alpha reader. Personality is another thing to note. If your alpha reader is a know-it-all who knows everything about writing, then their comments (usually unfounded) are going to inundate you and stress you out, which is counter-productive. If, on the other hand, your alpha reader is just reading and saying, “that’s good,” or “misspelled this word”, etc., then they’re not really doing anything you can’t do during revision.
Sometimes you have to experiment a bit to find suitable alpha readers, but regardless of how you figure this out, always show grace when receiving feedback and do express your gratitude for the time any alpha reader has given you. After all, they are looking at your story in a way that only someone other than you can do.
Alpha vs. Beta
In video game development, there are beta testers that test during later stages of development. These are often gamers who will push the game to its limits and report anything that goes wrong. If you have heard of beta readers, then perhaps your impression of them is similar. After all, it is also common for a writer to give his or her finished draft to a series of readers to get input. The difference here is that the writer is done. Revision might follow, but they aren’t staring at a blank canvas anymore.
We will talk about beta readers later, after the various revision steps to follow over the next few weeks. While you’re writing, though, think about ways you can use outside feedback to help with the process. It serves not only as a source of insight, but also sometimes of inspiration, since your alpha readers might comment on things they really like, and some of these may be things you didn’t expect.
Getting to the end
In four weeks I’ve talked about Step 8: Drafting. This is a huge step. For some it will take more than a year. Now I’m going to zip ahead, and many of you might bookmark these posts and the posts ahead for reference when you’re finished. Keep writing, and keep developing your stories. Most importantly, discover what works for you as you develop your process. It’s the only way to ensure your story will be as great as it can be.
Next week, I begin with part 3 of the storybuilding cycle: the post-draft integrated outline.
Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. His his first story, The Pact, is now available for
You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog: