A question that comes up a lot in the writing groups I’m part of is the question of what alpha-readers and beta-readers do. What’s the difference? What is the purpose of each? Today, I wanted to tackle those questions and help you understand how best to work with each group.
The Purpose of Alpha-Readers
Alpha-readers are one or two people who read your first or second draft (depending on what’s going to work best for you and your current book) and provide encouragement, as well as some feedback on the big-picture of your book. They might point out structural issues, for instance, or inconsistencies, or elements that are unclear to the reader.
Who Should You Choose as Alpha-Readers?
You’ll want your alpha-readers to be authors you trust and authors who will be able to encourage you as you write (or rewrite). Alpha-readers are going to see one of the roughest drafts of your book, so be sure they’re people you’re comfortable with. You’ll also want readers who can balance helpful feedback with grace and encouragement.
The Purpose of Beta-Readers
Beta-readers are a larger group of readers who give feedback on a much more polished draft of your book. Often, you’ll be looking for readers who will give you a reader’s perspective on your book, and possibly point out structural issues. Beta-readers will tell you if your characters are likable, if they’re relatable, if your setting is immersive, if your scenarios are believable, etc.
When Should You Look for Beta-Readers?
You’ll want to look for beta-readers when you’re running out of edits you can make on your own. Are your edits starting to feel like spinning your wheels? It might be time to get some new eyes on your manuscript. Beta-readers will usually fall between your self-edits and the work of a professional editor.
Who Should You Choose as Beta-Readers?
Beta-reader requirements are more flexible than the requirements for alpha-readers. Beta-readers usually ought to be authors, and they ought to give balanced feedback; but while you’ll want a close relationship with your alpha-readers, you can get acquaintances to beta-read. You might want a mix of authors you know well and authors you don’t know as well when assembling beta-readers, so there’s a group that will be more familiar with your intentions and a group that can read with the perspective of a new reader. If you want, you can “test drive” your beta-readers by sending the first chapter of your book and seeing what sort of feedback they give and on what timeline. This will give you a better idea of whose feedback is going to be timely and helpful, but it’s not strictly necessary.
Often, writing groups are a great place to post and ask for beta-readers. Include a summary of your book, as well as its genre and any content a reader might want to be aware of, so that a potential reader knows if they’re going to be a good fit for your story.
Bonus: Sensitivity Readers
Another group of readers you might get to read a draft of your book would be sensitivity readers. If you’ve included situations or characters that would benefit from the feedback of people who have firsthand experience (e.g. chronic illness, mental illness, PTSD, military service, etc.), sensitivity readers are a good idea. Especially if that situation or character might offend readers if it’s not done well.
It helps for sensitivity readers to be people you know well, but it’s not a requirement. Sensitivity readers should have firsthand experience with the topic you’re writing about, and they should be gracious but honest so that you can best know what to fix and how to fix it.
For more on sensitivity reading and how to do it well (as an author), check out this post by Hannah Heath.
Have you worked with alpha-readers or beta-readers before? What was your experience like? Do you enjoy these sections of the process, or is editing not your favorite?