This article is about checkers. Everybody needs them, from the first-time storyteller to the seasoned novelist. There is a bewildering array of labels for those who check others’ writing. I offer simplified definitions below. Imagine boiling carrot soup in a non-stick pot for twelve hours. You end up with essence of carrot. My definitions don’t aim for completeness but for concentrated carrotiness.
These are people who read your work at an early stage, e.g. the first draft. Some writers want alpha readers to check chapter by chapter. Alpha readers may comment on characterisation, comprehensibility, plot holes, believability, setting.
These read your work after it has undergone extensive revision – maybe three or four drafts. They look at many of the same points as alpha readers, but with more of a fine tooth comb. Are there inconsistencies? Are all the plot threads tied up? Are some parts unclear or unexplained? Would the story be better if it took a different direction somewhere? Should one or two characters be ditched? Is the ending satisfying?
At a late stage, they check grammar, spelling, usage, style, anachronisms, errors of fact, consistency of capitalisation, dates, location, potentially libellous statements. (A good beta reader might cover some of these, but not all.)
They come into play right at the end, after all other checkers have done their jobs and before the book is printed. They look at spelling, punctuation, grammar, typographical errors, wrong dialect use, etc.
Never heard of these? Don’t worry, I just invented them. Why did I do that? Because most of us don’t have the time, or don’t know enough people, to approach two different sets of helpers – alpha readers and beta readers. We’re grateful if one reader can perform both functions, so that’s what most of us settle for, even though we may call them “beta readers”. Albie readers are our much-prized hybrids.
How many albie readers should I aim for?
The more the better, as different readers spot different things. Writers I know enlist between two and ten; be happy with five or six. For “Whale Soup”, I had nine albie readers: two cousins, three friends, two fellow writers, and two fellow students from university days. If possible, avoid roping in your nearest and dearest. People who are predisposed to like you will never manage to be completely objective, however much they protest they are.
How do I send work to albie readers?
Quickest is by email, but many readers like to mark hard copies. Can you expect them to print 200 or 300 pages? Hardly. I printed out ten copies of the book and had them comb-bound. A good trick is to convert the whole book into an ultra-condensed font, purely for this printing. This cuts down greatly on page count and paper costs. Afterwards, you can convert the book back into a font that is preferable for the finished product.
Half of my readers did not live within easy driving distance, so I mailed them the comb-bound volumes. I also paid for return postage. If you’re thinking, “Wow, these costs are mounting,” my response is, “Yes, but that’s probably the best investment I made.”
What can I expect of albie readers?
The short answer is: “Very uneven responses.” One reader read my book twice and made detailed comments in the margin throughout – an invaluable help. At the other extreme, someone offered only two or three sentences of criticism, but one of them prompted me to change the ending of the book. They may comment on aspects of the plot, scenes they like/don’t like, believability, punctuation, characterisation, inconsistencies, or factual inaccuracies. “Why does So-and-so do so-and-so?” and “How does X know that Y wants Z?” are questions which suggest you haven’t explained something fully enough.
The key word is editing. All the above labels refer to various types of editor. The worst mistake budding writers can make is to believe they are self-sufficient because they have learned how to self-edit. The ability to self-edit is essential; you do it before sending work to any checker. Yes, it’s essential, but it’s not enough. We need other eyes, and not just one pair. Labels don’t matter. What matters is getting our work checked, double-checked, and then checked again.
Please excuse me now, as I have to prepare lunch: carrot cocktail, carrotburgers, and carottes brûlées. Got to garotte the carottes.