No one wants to send their manuscript to an editor cold turkey. You’re human. You make mistakes. If no one else has answered a few questions about your story, you may not be sure it even makes logical sense outside your own head. This is the realm of the alpha and beta readers.
What Are Alpha and Beta Readers?
Alpha and beta readers are the early test audiences. Alpha readers are the two or three people you trust to read second (or even first) drafts to see if you’re on the right track or need major overhauls to hold a reader’s attention. Beta readers get to see third or fourth drafts. They tell you what the liked, where they got distracted, if passages confused them, etc.
What Alpha and Beta Readers Are Not
Although they help you make early edits, alpha and beta readers are not editors. You need more than one, because you need a small pool of opinions to examine before making basic changes to the bones of your story. An editor is a trained professional who helps bring out your voice, clean up messy sentences, and create a marketable book. That is way too much pressure for alpha and beta readers. An editor gets paid. Alpha and beta readers are typically volunteers.
Great Alpha Reader Qualities
First of all, you need to trust your alpha readers. These aren’t your frenemies, cousins who make back-handed compliments, or a stranger you’ve just met online. Pull people from your sphere of influence who enjoy reading, enjoy you, and want you to succeed.
The more your alpha readers read other people’s writing, the better. They have an instinctive feel for flow, pace, etc. Because they understand how books work, you don’t have to hold their hand through the whole process.
Look for people who ask questions rather than giving advice when they first meet a problem. They’ll help you think through issues instead of trying to write your book for you. Fanfiction is wonderful, but only after the book gets published.
This looks like:
“How have x’s feelings for y changed? Their actions don’t quite line up with their original motivation, or have I missed something?”
It doesn’t look like:
“What if x is secretly y’s twin, and the eldritch abominations they’ve been fighting all along are a hallucination! I read this awesome twist in this other story, and you should try…”
The second example is someone who desperately needs to write their own book and is instead attempting to rewrite yours This is a bad alpha (or even beta) reader. To make sure you get the results you need from an alpha read, emphasize that you’re looking for questions, not answers.
Great Beta Reader Qualities
Beta readers can be a little pickier than alphas. Once your first test audience confirms you’re on the right path, you can start cleaning up the trail. Betas should answer specific questions (your alpha readers may inspire some of these) about character arcs, endings, setting, etc.
A sharp-eyed beta may offer unsolicited line editing for grammar and punctuation. While it’s always nice to fix these things before sending your manuscript to an editor, an editor will inevitably suggest changes, so don’t worry too much about dangling modifiers just yet.
Who is your favorite alpha or beta reader? How have they helped your stories grow, and what unique insights did they offer? Do you have advice for any new writers seeking their first alpha and beta pools? Make sure to drop a comment!