Engaging Alpha Readers

I’ve mentioned on and off these creatures called alpha and beta readers. What are they and what do they do?

In yesterday’s video, I talked a bit about alpha readers (in this video, I was writing Bible studies at the time, but I think it definitely can easily apply to novels. Just substitute novel for every time I mention a study or the Bible or whatevs and you’ll be good). I want to dive in a little deeper to the role of alpha readers, the kinds of questions you’d want to ask them, and how to kick them in the pants a little if they’re being too slow.

Alpha readers are the first readers you have for your manuscript. They get to see the scary, mostly rough version of your story – the one you might not even send to your mom yet.

In theory, it shouldn’t be a slow process.


What about when your alpha readers are slow? What if they’re just not getting back to you? How do you gently encourage them to read faster? I mean, after all, they’re volunteering their time to help you out. We should just be grateful for whatever they do, no matter how long it takes right?

Weeeeellllll, not necessarily.

Sometimes, people commit out of obligation. You asked and they said yes even though they were thinking they probably didn’t have time. These are human beings and they do silly stuff like that (just like you and me, I promise).

Sometimes, people really do want to help but they’re just little forgetful. They genuinely want to read, but life starts happening and the next thing they know, it’s been three weeks and they’ve COMPLETELY forgotten about agreeing to help you.

I mean, these are alphas. These are the people who are close to you. They care about you. They want you to succeed. You probably have a timeline you’d like to follow as well, right? You have a plan of action, even if it’s pretty loose? Maybe it’s been a month (or more!) and you’re itching to get back into editing.

Are you ready for a profound answer?

Simple, respectful honesty is the way to get them back in gear.

Were you hoping for something a little more, oh passive? A little less interaction-like? Maybe you were hoping for something that would really blow your socks off and now you feel a little disappointed.

I know, I’m sorry to disappoint. Plus, I would love something nice and passive and not so interaction-like, too. I’m a bit avoidant. I’m a LOT introverted. If I never had to use a telephone for its calling purposes or voluntarily talk to strangers except on my very own, specific terms, that would be great. However, that isn’t how the world works, is it?

When I must interact, I engage with my readers (both alphas and betas) in as much of a text format as possible (messages, email, text) because I think better through the written word and I’m less awkward that way. When I feel like there’s been too much time since I’ve received feedback, I shoot off a quick message. I’ve found that this little sentence works WONDERS: “Hey, how’s the reading coming?”

More often than not, it’s all I have to do in order to jog their memory and get them back on track for reading. I generally don’t pester more than once a week though, because seriously, I don’t have time for that kind of nagging and who likes to be nagged anyway? If I must pester more often, I let them know ahead of time. Also, if I have timeline, I let them know that too, so when I remind them, they were already aware that I wanted it done in a month (or whatever timeframe). Your timeline should NEVER come as a surprise to your alphas. It should be one of the first things you tell them.

Another thing I’ve found that works is asking a clarifying question on a previous comment. This is a great two-fold method – it answers the question I had and reminds them to get back to work.

What if, though, they keep avoiding or keep putting it off? What do you do then?

That’s where things get sticky and tricky. Either you can move forward, especially if you’re nearing a deadline you’d like (or need!) to reach, without their feedback. I would recommend one last reach out – ‘Hey, I’d like to start editing on Monday, just a heads up’ or something along those lines.

However, sometimes, and this is pretty rare with alphas, you just need to drop them. Thank them for offering, tell them you need to move on, and then do it.

That’s the hardest part, right? Sure, writing is hard. Asking people to help is hard. Editing is hard. Feedback is hard. But is any of it harder than telling someone who offered to help that you don’t want their help anymore? Or in other words, firing a volunteer? It’s terrible!

I get all worried about hurting their feelings, that they might get mad, that they might hunt me down in my sleep….okay, maybe not that last one. The reality is, though, as long as you were up front and honest at the beginning, if you need to drop them and they get angry, that is their problem. It sounds harsh, I know. If I have learned one thing over the past few years that has helped me tremendously, it’s learning how to set and maintain boundaries (more on that another time).

What we as gentle writers need to remember, though, is that if we have made ourselves a deadline and communicated it, we should do whatever we can to stick to it. A little deviation on our part is fine, sure, but we shouldn’t allow others to hold us back when we’re ready to go and they’ve known when we would be ready to go.

If you have given your alpha readers adequate time to do a read through, this should be less difficult. If you are rushing them, well then, I’d have to say that them not finishing is your fault. You should always make sure they have plenty of time – allow two to five days per chapter for them to read, depending on the length of your chapters and their life schedule.

At the end of the day, it’s your project to drive forward and complete. It’s up to you to help all your readers remember to stay on track, to continue working, and to give you the feedback you need. Think of creative ways to help them succeed, even if it means spending a few bucks printing it out for them. After all, nothing beats the insight from those first pair of eyes.

Do you have experience with alpha readers? Anything else you’d share? What is the one thing you’d like to know about alpha readers?


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