No matter how good your first, second, or even third draft is, it’s not ready for primetime until someone else can evaluate it. Like a doctor operating on their dying child, it’s a bad idea to only trust your own work. You’re just too close.
In the traditional publishing world, at least a few sets of eyes (agents, editors, etc.) will scour your book to help you make it something worth printing. Self published authors who are doing it right also hire editors. These people are paid. Their time is precious and limited. Your book isn’t the only one on their plate.
What if you could fine tune your work so that a.) you could present agents with writing that is attractive and b.) you could present editors with work that is already mostly fixed, therefore leaving them more time to scrutinize the small stuff? Well folks I’m here to tell you it’s very possible. Enter your best friends, alpha and beta readers.
I say “best friends” because chances are, that’s who they are. Your friends, your family, your coworkers, the cool lady from your ultimate frisbee league, these could be the saviors of your story.
Before we dive into how to utilize alpha and beta readers, let’s get clear about what they actually are.
Alpha Reader: This a person or a small group of people who give feedback on your work AS YOU’RE WRITING IT. In other words, while you are working on your rough draft. Many writers use just one person, others bring bits or chapters to writing critique groups. All of them count as Alpha readers.
Beta Reader: This is a person or small group of people (more is better) who are asked to read and critique a finished draft. Usually a second or third, semi-polished draft.
Now, before you can utilize alpha and beta readers properly, both parties have to know what’s expected.
First and foremost, this is not a time for cupcakes and rainbows. If you just need a smile and a pat on the back, find someone who will read your work and give you that encouragement. It will make you feel better but it won’t improve your writing.
Alpha and more so, beta reading is about fixing what’s broken. It’s about taking a good, though weak concept and lifting it to its highest potential. You need someone who will sniff out the bad while also acknowledging the good. You need honesty.
Honesty is the key characteristic of a good alpha or beta reader. This doesn’t mean that their honest feedback is always accurate, but it does mean that you can trust what they were thinking and feeling at the time. If you don’t think you can trust someone to be as harsh as necessary, you’ll need to find another reader.
Now, once you’ve found honest, trustworthy readers. Let’s talk about their roles.
First, let’s go back to alpha readers. The key to using alpha readers effectively is to make sure they understand the difference between general guidance and nitpicking. The nitpicking comes later. An alpha reader should alert you to what’s working and what’s not. This isn’t the time for commas or the passive voice police. This is a time for open, general critique. This can be difficult if your alpha readers are a part of a critique group. More on that in part three of this series.
Now onto the all important beta readers. Here is where the fun begins. As with alpha readers, they shouldn’t be focusing on grammar and punctuation. Beta reading is about running your concepts, characters, and plot though the ringer. While a good alpha reader acts as a guidance counselor, a good beta reader is more like a building inspector. Any weak framing or faulty wiring gets pointed out and written down in their notes. They are there to show you your manuscript’s flaws. This might seem harsh at first but it’s better to have your friends tear your work apart before publication than your agent, editor, and audience afterward. It is for this reason that you want to encourage your beta readers to be brutal. You heard me right, brutal, but not in an adversarial way. Think of your beta readers as your sparring partner. Before you step into the ring for the big fight, you want your ally to get you prepared. If they go easy on you, you won’t be ready for the real beating.
Not everyone uses both types of reader. Alpha readers are usually the first to be skipped because they just simply aren’t as necessary. You can stumble through the first few drafts on your own without an alpha reader but, in my mind, beta readers are a must. They have been so helpful to me in my own writing.
In the third and final part of this series we’ll talk about what to do with the feedback you receive. Some of it will be solid gold. You’ll read their critiques and exclaim, “How could I have been such a fool. Thank you dear beta reader, thank you!” Some of it will be … less than helpful. You’ll need to draw the line between problem and opinion and we’ll discuss that next time.