Taking Your Baby to School – Finding Readers for a” Finished” Manuscript

Every writer knows that at some point you have to take your “baby” (the manuscript) into the wider world. It is said the work of writing a book is a solitary endeavor, but to get a manuscript to its best, it needs to be exposed to others. The fresh eyes every author needs are those of alpha and beta readers.

I have been blessed with some exceptional readers, all of whom are friends or acquaintances, and none of whom is family (something every author advice source warns against). Selection was not random. I chose readers carefully for the special knowledge and talents they could bring to their critiques. And I wanted honesty. Sometimes the terms alpha and beta are used interchangeably in this context, but I prefer to use them to designate different types of readers.

The ladies of my writing group were my earliest alpha readers. They were the first to read about Herman, often chapter by chapter, as the manuscript was being written. Alpha readers need to have some knowledge of the writing craft and/or insight into how your book fits into the standards of the marketplace. Their suggestions may target plot and character development, holes in the structure, chapter arrangement, and much more. Input from my writers group included early suggestions about the best place to begin the story and the optimal placement of the backstory about Herman’s childhood. Later they asked me to show motivation for Herman’s harsh treatment of the SS tank officer he interrogated, to add more depth into the relationship with Giselle, and to provide the answers to questions created by story details. A good friend who is a professor of English literature also read my work and recommended removing sections that seemed tedious and not relevant to the thrust of the novel.

The rule about not using anyone too close to you as a reader is based on the likelihood of getting pleasant platitudes rather than raw honesty. I thought long and hard before asking my boyfriend of several years to read the manuscript, but I needed a man’s input, and especially a man with army experience. His critique turned out to be invaluable. Besides having served in the army, he is a lifelong motorcycle rider. “You can’t have Herman take his motorcycle up the front stairs and into the house to hide it,” he told me. “It would be way too heavy and cumbersome. Imagine trying to do that with my Harley!” The idea was ludicrous. So Herman had to maneuver his cycle to the backyard and hide it in an old garden shed.

Finally, when I felt the manuscript was as good as I could get it, I approached people I hoped would be beta readers for me—people willing to read the entire book and who possessed a specific focus, expertise, or experience. I needed readers who would offer discerning advice on how to further the readiness of the manuscript for publication.

I selected, among others, a high school librarian, a published author, a friend with a master’s degree in English, a lady from my book club who works as a literary publicist, a freelance editor, and two Ritchie Boys. Many suggestions and comments were generated by my beta readers. One of the most valuable ideas was from a Ritchie Boy who suggested I show the conflicting opinions of American occupying forces about denazification and the treatment of German prisoners, especially SS.

Every reader helped me get closer to a manuscript I could be proud of. Each subsequent edit made the book better. Most of my beta readers also offered encouragement. “I could hardly put it down,” one told me. “The story was interesting and I liked Herman,” another said. I began to hope that one day readers from the general public might feel the same.

I cannot say this too emphatically: every book needs its alpha and beta readers. The process is like sending your child to kindergarten and facilitating the natural development toward high school graduation. The next step is college—otherwise known as a professional editor.


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