What's the Difference Between an Alpha Reader and a Beta Reader?

What's the difference between an alpha reader and a beta reader?

 

By David Griffin Brown

 

A great novel is honed, not hatched. And to hone your novel, you need feedback.

So what’s the difference between alpha readers, beta readers, and developmental editors? Let’s get into it.

Alpha Readers: Nurturing Your New Narrative

Quite simply, an alpha reader is the first person to read your brand-new manuscript. You’ve gone through the initial stages of self-editing and you’re finally ready for those early eager eyeballs. But let’s not be absolutist about this definition: you can definitely have more than one alpha reader.

The idea here is that your manuscript is still in a raw state. As such, the first people you turn to for feedback will likely know you well. Maybe it’s your spouse. Maybe it’s your best friend. Ideally, this is someone who can give you a big-picture assessment, but more importantly, they will be gentle and encouraging.

Keep in mind that readers who know you and your voice are going to have an easier time sinking into your writing and they will also have a vested interest in your success. That’s why alpha feedback can only take you so far. Once you’ve addressed this initial stage of helpful suggestions, it’s time to turn to people who will give you a more objective perspective.

Beta Readers: The Bookish Bystanders

Do beta readers always follow alpha readers? No, not necessarily. Some writers will turn to a developmental editor at this stage. But editors are editors; their feedback will be more substantive than what you will tend to receive from alpha or beta readers. So whether or not an editor takes on your manuscript immediately after your alpha readers, beta readers are still considered the second round of reader feedback.

In particular, beta readers should be people you don’t know, or at least not super well. Perhaps they are already familiar with your work, but they should be willing to give you unflinchingly honest feedback. That’s not to say they shouldn’t also be encouraging. “Good” feedback, after all, emphasizes what’s working along with what isn’t. The point is, at this stage you want feedback that is more impartial—from people who don’t have a vested interest in your success.

So what’s the ideal order of operations here? The answer, of course, depends on you and your manuscript. With my own current work-in-progress, I took the following post-alpha approach:

(1) I hired two beta readers who I’d never worked with before—I was looking for overall impressions from complete strangers.

(2) I turned to two trusted editors for developmental feedback.

(3) Finally, I ran the manuscript past a trusted beta reader who I’ve worked with previously.

This has been a helpful experience, but it’s admittedly gone on longer than I expected. And here’s why: every time I received feedback on a particular issue, I would set about “fixing” the story, and in doing so, conclude that the snag was resolved. Only during the final beta read did I realize how much feedback from the developmental stage had yet to be fully addressed.

Many of my clients have experienced this same difficulty: I give them developmental feedback, then they go off to revise, but when the manuscript comes back to me, the original issues are still there. They aren’t as glaring as before, but they haven’t been completely resolved.

Exactly what amount of feedback you need depends on the feedback you get—and who you get it from. You need to find what process suits you best.

How do critique partners fit into all this?

Just to make things more confusing—critique partners are usually other writers who you may or may not know personally, with whom you exchange feedback. This might be a writing group. It might also be a random writer friend who you connected with on social media.

How are critique partners different from beta readers? They’re not. Or not necessarily. Critique partner isn’t a distinct category. Maybe you’re married to a novelist. In that case, you might consider your alpha reader to be a critique partner. Or maybe your critique partner is a dev editor, in which case, you might consider them to be your editor.

Don’t get too caught up in these terms. People throw them around in different ways. The main takeaway is simple: get as much feedback as possible on your manuscript. We write to be read, and so the reader’s experience of our work is the only barometer.

Readers versus Editors

Again, it’s important not to get too caught up in these terms. There are no absolutes. After all, many editors offer “beta reading” as one of their services.

At a general level, an editor has a strong grasp of craft fundamentals like trajectory, characterization, structure, pacing, and stakes, whereas a reader’s focus is their personal preferences, engagement, and expectations. So perhaps the alpha/beta reader says, "here is my experience of the text," while an editor says, "here is my assessment of a potential reader's experience of the text."

Recruitment and Selection

You don’t generally recruit alpha readers. But if you don’t have any family or friends eager to read a fledgling manuscript (it’s a big ask, after all), your first readers might be more from the beta camp.

When selecting beta readers, look for individuals who are familiar with your genre and are willing to be honest, yet supportive. They don't necessarily need to be experts in the craft, but they should understand what makes a story engaging and be able to articulate their feelings about your manuscript.

Obviously, if you are hiring beta readers, you should be more stringent in your recruitment process. When it comes to working with volunteers, keep in mind that they have no compulsion to finish the job, so you’ll want to cast a wider net. Also, keep in mind how much time and effort it takes to read a manuscript and deliver feedback. If you send your beta volunteers a tip or a small gift, they will be more likely to work with you again.

But hold on, where can you find free beta readers?! There are subreddits and Goodreads groups you can join. And there’s always social media. Ask around. Pitch your story. Finding free beta readers often requires some effort, some engagement, and quite often a trade—I’ll read your book if you read mine.

Our Beta Reader Feedback Template

Whether you are relying on paid or unpaid beta readers, agree to a set of questions ahead of time.

Here at the Darling Axe, we have a roster of vetted beta readers who frame their feedback according to ten standard questions plus three more provided by the author. Here are the questions we use:

  1. What did you like most about the narrative? Why?
  2. Who was your favourite character? Why?
  3. Did any characters feel underdeveloped? How so?
  4. What conclusions can you come to about the manuscript’s theme? Was there an underlying message the author was trying to convey?
  5. Was there any point where you felt the pace was dragging? Were there any recurring issues that pulled you out of the story world?
  6. Can you name the protagonist’s narrative goal? (This is a quest or desire that arises in the inciting incident and culminates, whether with success or failure, in the climax.)
  7. How significant were the stakes that the protagonist faced? What made you care—or not care—about the protagonist’s journey or goal?
  8. How was POV (point of view) handled in the manuscript? Was it consistent? Was it effective?
  9. How does this manuscript compare to other titles you’ve read recently in the same genre?
  10. If you picked up this book at a store or library, would you have finished it? If not, where would you have stopped and why?

     Are beta readers safe?

    First things first: I am not offering legal advice.

    Second: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

    Can a beta reader experience end in misery? Sure. Most things we do in life can end badly. There are unfortunately some shitty people in the world.

    But let’s run through this hypothetical: a scam-minded would-be beta reader gets a hold of your manuscript. What can they do with it? Try to publish it before you do? Do they have all the skills needed to format the book and market it? And what will they do when you report them to Amazon, with the very clear evidence of your time-stamped email exchange that proves your ownership of the work?

    In general, a manuscript that is handed to a beta reader is still in development. It’s highly unlikely that this scammy individual has the craft fundamentals to turn your draft into a saleable product, let alone get it published. And again, in the digital age, it’s easy to prove your copyright.

    The only actual story I’ve encountered about a beta-reader betrayal involved a lit agent’s client who had their book leaked on a torrent site ahead of its release. Not a wonderful turn of events, but not the end of the world either. The author’s book was still a success.

    What has your experience been?

    What experiences have you had with beta readers?

    Where did you find your beta readers or critique partners?

    Who is your unsung hero AKA your alpha reader??

    Leave a comment below :)


    David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

    David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

    Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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