Writers throw around terms like alpha and beta readers. But really what is that? Why two different groups?
Part of the confusion is that there are subtly different definitions depending on who you ask. Some will say that an alpha reader is simply the first people to read it–no other qualifiers. That’s how I defined it for many years. Then I read another description of it which made sense.
This definition distinguishes between readers who are writers and readers who are readers. Both types of readers are critically important.
The alpha reader is a reader who reads it from a writer’s perspective. This is not an editor that looks at punctuation and grammar stuff. This is a writer that is familiar with story structure, character development, and etc and can express their thoughts in writer terms. You can give them a rough story and they know it is merely draft one. They will not look at you askance and think you are hopeless. They can look at the story and without batting an eye tell you what needs to be fixed for draft 2.
Often I will give this to my alpha readers as I finish writing each chapter. So they will have a harder time giving an accurate feel for the pacing.
A comment from this type of reader might be:
- The subplot is competing too heavily with the main plot
- The secondary character is more interesting than your main character
- This would be better written in present tense.
- This should be in 3rd person, not first person
- The subplot is gets muddy in Chapter 5 and then just disappeared. You need to resolve that plot line..
- This story needs a contrasting subplot not a complementing one.
- Chapter 2 needs more milieu.
How many alpha readers? Sometimes just 1. Maybe your partner is really good at this. Maybe you have a mentor or critique partner. I really like having more than one. I’m in two groups. One is more casual. We have about 10 in that group. Not everyone in this group reads a bunch of my type of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Brian is my Science Fiction Expert and my go to guy for that kind of story. Beverly is our resident editor. Barbara is our historian. Several others read fantasy on a regular basis. They are all experienced writers! So depending on the type of story I’m writing will determine who I hand my story to for feedback.
With my critique group, they all hear it when we read it aloud. This is a group of 6 if they are all in attendance. Again some are avid fantasy readers and some are not. Often some of the non-fantasy readers get confused because they are not used to some of the things that fantasy does. (ex switching between 1st and 3rd person within a scene. I did it intentionally, but it totally confused some readers.)
Alpha readers will sometimes read 3-4 iterations of the same story and give feedback.
These are pure readers. They don’t write novels, they just really enjoy a good story.
I will give this draft to them all at once. This way I can get more reliable feedback about the pacing of the overall story.
Though they might not speak in technical terms, they give you invaluable feedback. Better that they tell you the beginning was boring now, than have potential readers not buy it once it is released.
These are important because you and your writing peers sometimes too close to the story after 3-4 revisions. You can’t see the forest for the trees. Beta readers will usually only read the story once and give you feedback. hopefully at this point the story is close to ready for publication and may only need a little tightening up and tweaking based on this feedback.
Comments from this type of reader might look like:
- The middle gets a bit slow.
- That book wore me out! I couldn’t put it down even to go to the bathroom!
- I love [character name].
- The villain is too relatable; I was actually rooting for him to win!
- The story line with [character name] is not very interesting.
- I saw that twist coming back in chapter 12
- That twist didn’t make sense.
- The twist was amazing! I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t see that coming!
Finally after you make the fixes suggested by your Alpha and Beta Readers, THEN you are ready for line edits and agonizing about a single comma for days on end. No, actually please don’t agonize about a comma!
I hope you found this post helpful! Remember though different people tend to have different definitions. There is no right and wrong. It makes no difference, just get opinions from several different kinds of readers. That’s what counts!