This past weekend, I entered a piece of my writing in a contest. Generally, I’m not a fan of writing contests but sometimes to get my adrenaline going, I need a deadline. Writing contests have deadlines. To participate, you are charged a substantial fee—$15-$40. Thus, a commitment to sending in only what you feel is your superior work, is essential.
If you read the fine print, you’ll learn that only a handful of finalists are actually read by the nationally acclaimed judge, an author who has a long list of publication credits and has won several awards . The other several hundreds of submissions are cast aside in a process that slowly culls the entries until in theory, the very best remain. So who is doing most of the reading? I’d like to imagine they are discerning writers and editors, but I don’t know for certain. And even if the contest “readers” are not rushing through virtual stacks of manuscripts, tastes vary tremendously.
That’s where the friends come in, friends willing to read your writing and give you honest feedback. Whether you call them alpha readers or beta readers, truthful reactions to a manuscript give a writer a better understanding of what is successful and what needs revision. The more people that read your work before you submit it to a contest or for publication, the more likely you are to find the flaws and have the chance to improve your work.
Alpha, the first letter in the Greek alphabet, means the reader is viewing an early draft of a piece. A beta reader is giving editing feedback on a work in progress that has already been thoughtfully revised and edited several times.
One of the significant benefits of participating in a writer’s workshop is the immediate access to feedback from all the other students. This only works, however, IF the other students are committed. I’ve been in workshops where the feedback has been generous and insightful. I’ve also encountered individuals who barely read or comment on the work of their peers. The latter are cheating themselves, because by understanding what is working and not working in a manuscript, you indirectly learn about the writing craft. Thus, when you take the time to give feedback to a fellow writer, you are actually helping yourself. So if you are serious about writing, take the time to read and reflect on the work of both accomplished writers and student writers. What do you like and what don’t you like? Are there ways the piece could be improved?
Friendship can mean many things. To me, it means an awareness of those around us, the willingness to extend out your hand and help someone else. On a global scale, I look at the citizens of Poland who have willingly opened their borders and taken Ukrainian refugees into their homes. They see people who need help and as any friend would, they are helping them.
Like many writers, I often want to immediately share a story I just wrote. Often I read it aloud, and just the process of saying the words will make me aware of mistakes and inconsistencies. If my husband is available, I’ll read it to him and he becomes my alpha reader. Once in a blue moon he’ll say, Good. I can’t find anything wrong with it. More often he’ll say, I think it needs work Nadja.
If he is not in the building and I share it with no one, I’ll set the piece aside and read it again the following day or better yet, the following week. Maybe I like what I wrote. Often as not, I begin having doubts. Maybe this piece isn’t so good, I say to myself. What was I thinking? The best outcome, is for me to take my favorite paragraph or sentences from the piece I am disappointed with and begin again.
So, if you do not have the luxury of several people willing to read your work, just by letting it sit a while and forgetting about it and reading it again, you become the alpha reader.
I am grateful to have several writer friends (beta readers) who are willing to read my work when asked, if their schedule allows. I try to return the favor whenever I can. One of the benefits of a Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing, is the opportunity to bond with other writers in your program. Five of us, all women, entered the Stonecoast low-residency program focusing on literary writing in the winter of 2018 and we graduated in the winter of 2020 prior to the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic. We still stay in touch to share our writing and support one another.
I’ve also met fellow writers through classes, friends, and conferences in Maryland where I live and developed close friendships. We want each other to succeed and we’ll gladly help each other.
Writing is a solitary profession. If you do not have specific assignments, it’s easy to procrastinate. Deadlines and goals are one way to keep you organized. If your ultimate objective is to produce work that others will want to read, submit for publication and occasionally enter a contest. But first you’ll want to give it a test drive. Readers, alpha or beta, provide an outside perspective. Friends, they’re important and appreciated. So thank you to all my writing friends. I couldn’t succeed without you.
Follow me on twitter at SN Maril. Read my piece “Family History” that was published by The Journal of Compressed Literary Arts, a work that evolved as a result of feedback from my writer friends.