Alpha, Beta or Wise Reader


I’m referring here to BJ Kelz’s post about what is an Alpha or Beta Reader to which I’m adding Orson Scott Card‘s definition of Wise Reader as they’re almost the same thing. I’m throwing in my twopences on the matter.

Like both BJ and Uncle Orson say, those readers have to be “trained”. I use some readers (native speakers) mostly to check the language or syntax or whatever. Others for plot points etc.

It’s the same with critique groups – you have to learn how to critique, but also what to ask your readers. If, for a piece, you’d like your reviewers to check a particular point, say so. Sometimes I don’t, because I figure “if they don’t notice it, it means it’s fine”, but that’s another story.

So, how to train your readers (I agree it’s better to have more than one, and possibly of both sexes to have a more “universal” view)? Hema gives good points on her post about critique groups and I have some from my writers group as well. I mean, even us writers, can we give a honest, constructive critique at the first try?

Didn’t think so. It took me five years to learn how to – and for poetry I’m still totally useless.

I enclose the guidelines that circulate among my writers group. Might help all of us to become better readers – especially if we plan to help each other with future drafts. Always a good reminder of what to do or what to ask of our readers! 🙂

Here are a few guidelines for commenting on other people’s work:

Please take the time to read the pieces carefully before the meeting, and to give them serious thought. It’s most helpful to the authors to receive your comments in written for, so that they can concentrate on the discussion rather than on taking notes. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can do a full written critique, otherwise give detailed notes, or write your comments directly on the manuscript.

Take note, though, that there is a difference between critiquing and editing: editing means looking at the piece line by line and commenting on details, while critiquing means taking an overall look at the piece and its larger aims. Editing is always valuable of course, and the authors will certainly be pleased to receive your detailed comments, but our main aim in the meetings is to look at the piece as a whole.

Respect the type of work that is being offered. If someone offers a romantic story, it’s no use criticizing it because you’d prefer something more literary. The question is, has the author succeeded in what he or she is trying to do?

Be tactful. Thoughtless comments may put people off writing altogether. Look for the strong points in a piece of writing, not only the weak points.

What should you look for when you’re commenting someone’s work?

–  Start by looking at the piece as a whole. What kind of overall impression does it give? What do you think was the author’s aim in writing the piece? How does the author achieve this aim? Is she or he successful?

– Is the piece and excerpts from a longer work (e.g. a chapter from a novel)? How do you think it will fit into the whork as a whole? How does the writer capture his/her readers’ interest, and ensure that they will want to keep reading?

– Is the style appropriate for the piece? What about the pace: does it move quickly or slowly, and does it so in the right places? In a fiction piece, you’ll probably want to comment on characterization and setting as well.

– Now look at the piece in more detail. Which points do you find particularly successful? Are there some which require more work?

Happy writing… and reading!

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9 Comments

  1. That’s a very in-depth analysis of what critiquing should be. Barb! When I put together the post “Critique Group”, I realized that just that topic in itself could generate 10 posts, if I had to cover every point I could and should…

    “Thoughtless comments may put people off writing altogether.” — great point! I agree that if you may not be the best person to critique a romantic story, if you prefer other genres, for example. However, I would still go ahead and critique it, because that is how you also grow as a writer.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking article!

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    • well, I printed the “rules” of my writers group… thought they might be useful for everybody! 😉
      Still looking for that alpha/beta/wise reader, though…
      Keep writing! 😀

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  2. I think I’m going to add this P.S. – this post also makes a point we should all remember:
    http://layinda.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/to-critique-or-not-to-critique/

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  3. Thanks, Barb! I need readers and wanted to make sure I understood the differences.

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    • you’re welcome! 🙂 As long as you know what you want from your betas… I know I want READERS, not writers who tend to tell me how to rewrite it… I have editors for that, LOL! 😀
      Happy writing!

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  4. I’ve always been confused about what a writer expects from a beta-reader but thanks to your post, I’ve now understood. Thanks a ton:)

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    • you’re very welcome! 🙂 Just make sure you know what kind of feedback you want and say so (although from my experience writers tend to want to rewrite you – but I still read like a reader, plot and character-oriented, so I won’t criticize your “voice”, LOL!) 🙂

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      • My “voice”? It’s sort of squeaky, I think 🙂 But thanks a ton – and I am grateful for all the information that you shared about self-publishing 🙂

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        • I’ll tell you if your writing voice is squeaky when I read something longer from you! 😉
          You’re very welcome – whatever I can pass on, I’ll pass on! 😀

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