Hey everybody, me again! In this video, I wanted to explore the differences between alpha and beta readers, what they can do to help your story (and how you can help them), and which type of test reader might be the right fit for you.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
ALPHA READER 101
Let’s start by looking at the definition of “alpha” and see if we can determine what an “alpha reader” is from there. “Alpha” is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, “A”, and can be used to denote the first in a series of things. Therefore, we can define an alpha reader as the “first” person or people who read your manuscript. In practice, it’s a bit more specific than that, so let’s take a look at the job of an alpha reader!
Most alpha readers will take a high-level look at your first draft and take notes on the big stuff: plot holes, unfinished scenes, gross lapses in characterization, and the like. For this reason, it is also helpful for your alpha reader(s) to have experience with the genre and target audience for whom you write so that they can sort of feel out how well your story meets those expectations on a basic level.
You would not necessarily want, for example, someone who primarily enjoys mystery novels to alpha read your high fantasy epic with 6 point-of-view characters and a treasure trove of worldbuilding to dig into unless they had read AND ENJOYED similar things before. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t write a book about astronomy without receiving feedback from an astronomist, and you probably wouldn’t want to give it to a professional musician for critique.
At this stage, your focus should generally fixate on filling the potholes and tidying up rough edges, so don’t have your alphas fret too much over things like grammar or spelling—much of that is liable to change as you rewrite, revise, and edit—or superfluous details like character or place names. Examples of things an alpha will be able to help the most with are:
- Plot holes, frayed ends, dropped or underdeveloped plots
- Wild swings in characterization or underdeveloped characters
- Immersion into the story world and/or the main character’s head
- Suspension of disbelief
- Freshness of characters, setting, and storylines
- Tone, mood, and voice, along with any abrupt or inappropriate shifts in them
- How well the story holds their interest in general terms
Being that they have such an important position in the lineup of people who will read your work, it’s ideal to find an alpha or group of alphas who are familiar with you or your work, encouraging, able to be honest with you, and whom you trust to handle their criticisms in a constructive manner. I personally had to learn this lesson the hard way, so please make this a priority in your search!
Now that we have a good understanding of the purpose of alpha readers, let’s talk about beta readers!
BETA READER 101
If “alpha” means “first”, “Beta”, the next letter of the Greek alphabet, would, of course, mean “second”.
Beta readers are the next step in polishing up your novel. Once you’ve rewritten, revised, rewritten some more, put on a fresh coat of paint, scrubbed the windows and floors, set the table and arranged the furniture just so, your story will be ready to invite over some beta readers. It is my personal recommendation that you wait to engage beta readers until you have hit the limit of what you can reasonably do to improve your story. For some, this may mean reaching the end of draft two. For others, this could mean another two, three, or more drafts. The important thing is to get all your ducks in a row: the story should be complete, coherent, have had a round or three of self-editing for grammar and spelling, and mostly be in a state of “done”. Once you’re certain you can’t do anything more on your own, it’s time to conjure up some betas!
So, what exactly do beta readers do? Well, most of them will be reading your story as if they had picked up a copy for their personal use. This way, you’re mainly gauging the experience of the reader and looking for feedback on how it can be improved. Betas mostly comment on the parts of your story that…
- Have poor or confusing sentence structure, spelling, or grammar
- Create continuity or consistency errors in characters or settings
- Made them frustrated or confused by the story, and not in a good way
- Worked and did not work for them, and hopefully why
A key part of knowing how best to use the help of beta readers in your story is to understand that beta readers are not by necessity professionals. Most of the time, they’re just regular readers or writers. This means that while they will be able to tell you what doesn’t work for them, they may not necessarily know why or how you should fix it. That’s something only you can decide, possibly with the help of a professional developmental editor (which is different from a copy editor).
With beta readers, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of anywhere from 5 to 15 or 20—the larger the pool of readers, the better sample size you can study to see if your story is meeting your target audience’s expectations, if anything is routinely pointed out or brought up as a flaw, and so forth. Be careful not to engage more readers than you can keep track of; it’s easy to overwhelm yourself with feedback, and that’s not useful at all. I personally like to use Google Forms for feedback because it spits it out into a nice little spreadsheet that makes it much simpler to assess large amounts of critique at once.
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TEST AUDIENCE
Since we’ve gone over the differences between alpha and beta readers, it’s time to discuss how to get the most out of your readers. In this section I will share five tips for interfacing with test readers. As an added bonus, I’ll link my test reader instructions for Marrow in the description below along with a blank version in case you’d like to make your own.
ONE: BE SPECIFIC. VERY SPECIFIC.
Specificity is going to be your absolute best friend any time you ask for feedback on your work, not just when hosting a test read. Before you decide to engage alphas or betas, you should figure out exactly what it is you want feedback on. “Did you like my story” is, unfortunately, way too broad of a question and won’t really help you when it comes to identifying issues within the manuscript. Instead, try to ask questions about a specific character or storyline, or about “meta” story stuff such as pacing. Here are a few examples of specific questions to get you started:
“Do you think Frodo’s motivation for partaking of the Quest of the Ring was clear enough? Why or why not?”
This question is good because it asks about Frodo’s motivation specifically, not just if he’s a “good” or “interesting” character in general. It forces the reader to think about how the character themself fits into the story, not just if they’re generally interesting to read about.
“Do you think the use of my Elvish conlang in place of plain-English ‘translations’ enhances immersion in the story world, or is it too distracting?”
This question asks how well a conlang fits into the text itself, which can definitely throw some readers. Questions like this can also remind readers to comment on similar topics, like if they skipped over most of the conlang bits or if they were so intrigued they want to see it on Duolingo in the future.
“Where did you feel the story ‘actually’ began? Do you think it begins in the right place or should it begin earlier/later?”
Instead of asking “Was the first chapter interesting?” or “Was the first act any good?”, ask the reader where they began to take interest. This will also help you figure out if you need to begin the story at a specific part, especially if a lot of the test readers are saying the same thing.
Honestly—and much to my readers’ chagrin—I’ve found that the more a question sounds like it could come from a book report prompt or an English quiz, the more effective it will be at garnering a useful response. However, be careful not to annoy anyone by getting too deep into minutiae!
TWO: CHOOSE YOUR TEST READERS WISELY.
I mentioned earlier that you should choose readers within your target audience: i.e., not handing a fantasy novel to a hardcore classics fan who hasn’t touched genre titles in their entire life. Other factors that can be important are age group, gender, and life experiences. For example, a book about the struggles of a 20-something woman at a university abroad is probably going to appeal the most to women in their late teens to mid-twenties who either are in college or plan to go to college and perhaps study abroad. If your novel is meant for teens, it’s a good idea for at least some of your testers to themselves be teenagers.
Be careful not to choose too many readers. If you think you can wrangle and effectively make use of the criticisms of 15 or more betas, go ham! If the thought of having to keep track of more than three people’s opinions at a time, take it at that pace. There’s also no law that says you can’t host more than one beta session. In fact, taking things in stages with some tweaking in between might yield even better results than one big event.
You’ll also want readers who exhibit a few key traits: honesty, constructiveness, encouragement, follow-through, and timeliness amongst them. I personally use a sign-up form for my test audience that helps me decide which readers to take on by asking a few simple questions about their experience with the genre, availability, and style of criticism.
THREE: GIVE YOUR READERS MORE THAN ENOUGH TIME TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT YOU’RE ASKING OF THEM.
This is enough to make or break your read. If you wrote a 200,000 word epic with multiple POV characters and plot twistier than a braid, you’re going to want to afford readers a reasonable amount of time to get that done. If you just have a humble novella or short story, the same is true. It’s also important not to give readers too much time, as this can backfire and lead to a higher rate of drop-outs or procrastination. What’s worked best for me in the past is shooting for a period between four and ten weeks depending on the story. For Marrow, for example, I gave the option for a four- or six- week alpha period depending on what the reader thought they could accomplish. Surprisingly, most readers chose four.
One possibility to prepare yourself for is that some readers, perhaps most of them, will need to drop out, may forget about the test period altogether, or might end up simply not liking the story. I have yet to host a reading period where at least one person either hasn’t finished on time or has dropped out, sometimes before they started. Since there’s really nothing to be done about this, it’s a good idea to have multiple readers at once and stay in communication throughout the read—which leads me to tip four!
FOUR: BE PRESENT AND AVAILABLE FOR ANY QUESTIONS, COMMENTS, OR ISSUES THAT MAY ARISE DURING THE TEST READ PERIOD.
This sounds obvious, but it’s probably the single most immediately helpful thing you can do for your readers. Throughout this process, readers may have questions or otherwise need your help, or you may realise something has gone wrong. Discord is enormously helpful for communicating quickly with a lot of people, which is what I personally use. Email is another useful tool for communication, especially if you’re taking an especially formal approach to your test period.
FIVE: GIVE THANKS TO YOUR READERS.
This one might seem obvious, too, but a little appreciation can go a long way! Remember to thank your readers throughout the test period and after they finish. A good way to memorialise their help is by offering them a place in the finished product’s acknowledgements. If they’re also a writer, helping them out when their test reading period comes around is a wonderful way to give thanks.
Anyway, that’s about all I have for this one! As always, I appreciate all likes, comments, and subscriptions if you enjoyed my content. Thank you all for watching and I’ll see you in the next one!