November 15, 2023
Getting outside feedback on your writing is immensely important – because it lives in your head, you’re likely to overlook things that someone else won’t. This is where alpha and beta readers come in.
What exactly are alpha and beta readers?
These are readers – not people who will go in and edit – who help you flesh out your writing. Generally, alpha readers read very early drafts – we’re talking first, maybe second drafts, maybe even reading along as you write the first draft – and can be invaluable when shaping the content. Think of them like the reader version of a developmental editor. They can help you nail down your characters, your plot, the feel of the whole thing. Often, alpha readers can be great resources and sounding boards as you move forward with their feedback.
Beta readers, on the other hand, get a more polished draft. They see what you’ve done after implementing alpha feedback (if you used alpha readers) and get something closer to a proper book/collection with a proper plot/flow. They’re a great resource to ask nitpicky questions to – does the character feel fleshed out? Does the theme of the collection feel cohesive? Were your emotions heightened at any point? Etc.
Remember, beta readers are also not editors. Alpha and beta readers are exactly that – readers. They’ll look at your work the same way they would a published book, but will provide feedback at the same time. Depending on your process, it’s after having beta readers that you’d send your project to an editor. That way, a lot of the big problems will have been dealt with, which could lower the price (or the time it takes to edit). Either way, there will be less things to tackle after an editor gets their hands on it, which is always helpful when revising and rewriting.
Why are alpha readers and beta readers important?: A non-comprehensive list.
- Like I said, these readers can spot things you won’t, since they’re not in your head. Even if you did spot those things, they can help come up with ideas on how to solve those issues (if they’re willing!).
- This sample group (I recommend at least three so there’s a tie breaker) also acts as your larger target audience. If all of them have an issue with a specific element of the text, it’s likely most of your readership post-publication would, too.
- They’re acting as readers, not editors, which means they won’t find every little element that could use some work. Why do I have that in a list of why they’re important? Because it gives you a sense of what has to be taken care of. An editor will spot things that readers may not be able to pinpoint, but what we editors do spot can help enhance what you’ve written, and we can put words to elements that maybe a reader did notice, but couldn’t articulate. But as for the readers, when they spot something that doesn’t sit right (and the majority of the other alpha/beta readers – or even just you! – agree), it’s a good sign that it really needs to be looked at closer.
- They can lower the cost of edits. Again, this may not always be applicable depending on the project and the editor, but it does give you the opportunity to narrow down what you want an editor to focus on, especially in developmental edits. Let’s say your alpha and beta readers helped you immensely on character arcs and plot, and you’re on a tight budget for editing. You can tell the editor you want them to focus primarily (or even solely) on dialogue because you feel that’s where you’re still struggling. They may lower the cost of the project if the scope is that narrowed.
- They can help you prepare it for querying. Point 4 is applicable to both indie and traditional publishing, though for trad, you don’t necessarily have to get an editor before querying, especially if you feel what you’ve produced is as good as it can get before a publishing house gets its hands on it. That means your alpha and beta readers are the only people who will see it before an agent does – and their insight could help you land one.
- And most importantly, having readers who are willing to read your book and provide feedback will really help you feel more confident in your writing and can improve the project in ways you may not have foreseen without them.
Note, this list applies to anything you write with the intent of publishing – poetry, picture books, young adult romance, new adult epic fantasies, memoirs, you name it. Alpha and beta readers are a remarkably helpful tool in the writing world – lean into that.
- Do I need to pay these readers? That depends on who you ask. Typically, though, the answer is no. Unless they’re a professional alpha/beta reader (they’re often also editors), most beta readers understand that it’s often a volunteer position. A lot of indie authors simply don’t have the budget to compensate alphas and betas (no matter how much they may want to!). But if a reader is a fellow writer, payment could come in the form of being a reader for them when they need one (if the fit is right), or helping them promote their books. The writing community is a highly supportive one, and you certainly see it in this particular area!
- A lot of people say I shouldn’t ask family/friends to be alpha/beta readers. Is that true? I have the controversial opinion of no, it’s not true. BUT. If you do ask friends or family, be highly selective and think it through first. Make sure, first and foremost, that they actually read the genre you write, otherwise their advice won’t be helpful. You also want to ask yourself how honest they usually are with you – is it someone who shies away from confrontation and doesn’t tell you how they feel so as to not hurt your feelings? That won’t be helpful when you’re looking for critical feedback. But is it someone who does tell you when you do something wrong, or opens up to you about things? They may be fine to ask. And, also importantly, do they understand the goal of having alpha/beta readers? Your end-game is putting your project out to the public (and likely to make some money from it), and alpha/beta readers help make sure what you put out is the best it can be. If a friend/family member isn’t understanding or supportive of that, they likely won’t give you good feedback.
Little caveats for this, too: even if you ask friends and family, I recommend having people who don’t fall into those categories read it, too. Even having just one person acting like a control element can be helpful. And writing friends, while friends, aren’t quite the same as non-writer friends – they bring a different angle and understanding to the process that essentially puts them in a different category.
- Do I need alpha and beta readers? Not necessarily, but I do recommend having at least two rounds of people look at it. That second round could be an editor (especially if self-publishing), but in any case, it’s helpful to have a group of people read through it after implementing changes brought on by the first group, to make sure everything makes sense and nothing was missed. This could look like:
– alphas + betas + editor(s)
– alphas + editor(s)
– betas + betas (ex. first round of people gets it after draft 4, second round after draft 6)
– betas + editor(s)
– alphas + betas
If you’re writing anything with the intent of publication, line up a few alpha/beta readers to help you polish the content. They may just point some things out that you never would have thought of otherwise!