Sunday, July 25, 2010

Alpha or Beta Readers

                                         Alpha                                            Beta

I've noticed a few people discussing this topic on their blogs, usually in praise of their alpha or beta readers. I thought it'd be a good topic to discuss since I also noticed that in some commentes people were unsure as to the difference between the two. While, I have neither, I did a little reading online to prepare for this post.

Alpha Reader

This one I actually found two different definitions. There was one site that explained the writer is the alpha, because they are the first ones since it is their story. However, that's not the version we're going to consider. In this case, let's consider the readers as someone who is not the writer.

An alpha reader is the reader who sees the rough draft of the book first. Often, they will get single chapters or small groups of chapters as soon as they've been written. This makes their critique a little different than the beta. Most writers send their work to an alpha to consider the story overall. They don't want a line edit and rarely will ask for comments about punctuation and grammar. It's a first, or maybe second, draft so while there will be editing needs later, that is not what is needed here. Instead, the reader will discuss plot issues, character problems and also do some cheerleading (encouraging the writer to keep going). Sometimes the alpha reader can look at an unfinished chapter or provide feedback to help the writer get through a road block, if they are stuck in the story.

Not everyone has an alpha reader, or three. Some people are not comfortable with anyone seeing the first or second draft of their novel. Some have a hard time finding someone they are comfortable with. It's not for everyone, but it's something to at least consider. While, it's never a good idea to have someone who only sees roses in first drafts, it does help to have encouragement.

Beta Readers

These are a little more known. The beta reader, sometimes a critique group, has a variety of roles. Most require that the book not only be finished, but also they prefer it not be in first draft. Some people many accept first drafts as a beta, however, usually the reader expects some editing and such before the work gets sent to them. Beta readers will look at both big and small issues. They can critique character, plot, whether there are inconsistencies in setting/character, holes in story, promises made and not followed through,  grammar, and other line by line editing suggestions. Not every beta reader will give the same type of critique. Also, while they will discuss some of the good things they like about the story, the goal is to have a reader who is completely honest. One who is willing to point out problems and say "hey, this does not work for me."

From what I've read so far, most people talk about this type of reader. They recommend that writers have at least one beta reader. While some manage fine on their own, writing/rewriting/editing, there is something a reader can bring to the table. The writer can't get completely away from their own story and the reader is bound to have a different "reader response" to the story. (Yep. I took a lit criticism class and the main thing I got from it was the reader response critique.)


The main differences between the two is the type of draft read and the type of critique given. Alpha readers will look at novels in first draft, while they are being written and the Beta readers take revised, already finished drafts. Alpha readers look at the big picture, can help through roadblocks, and poke at the writer to get more done so they can keep reading. Beta readers put on the hard hats and wield the red pens. They check for all kinds of problems, while still doing some encouragement, with the later drafts in order to help the writer make it the best story possible.

Know what kind of critique you are looking for and let the reader know

When I was in a critique group, I was new to all this. I had no finished first drafts, and then one finished nanowrimo first draft but no rewrites. So, I was submitting to the group barely edited chapters. What I didn't know is this: I wanted an alpha reader critique with just the overall story and character issues. Instead, I was getting the beta reader critique as the group members were good at noticing the smaller issues with the work. So, learn from this. If you don't want grammar and spelling comments, then let them know when you give them the story. Sure, it's its so bad they can't get to the story then they will comment anyways, but for a semi-edited draft, it shouldn't be so bad. If you don't tell them what type of critique you want, then you'll get whatever they send because they don't know if it's what you want/need or not.


Even though I don't have a reader right now, I would love to have an alpha reader. I'm on my first rewrite ever and thus not ready at this point for a beta. But I have an issue with finding one I'm comfortable with sending my work too. I have a minor issue with having a reader I don't know at all. I don't mind if it's not a friend per say, but I'd like to know them a little bit first. On the other hand, the other offer I've gotten is from my sister. While I appreciate her offer, and it would work with 1 novel, overall I want someone who can read a variety of novels. Sister reads YA, which I don't usually write. Also, she's not keen on homosexual main characters, which is almost all I write. Since most of my work is adult gay stories, I know that I can't send most to her. So, I'm left with no one right now. I hope to at least find a beta, since I want to submit some time in 2011 to agents. But the longer it takes to finish drafts and find someone to read it over, the longer it will be before I send out.

Maybe in a future post I'll gush about a reader I've found. But for now, I just have this post.

What about you?
Do you have an alpha or beta reader?


Natalie Murphy said...

I'm an alpha for Tina. I find that most alphas don't look only at the big picture. That's more of the betas job actually, since technically the MS should be shiny and polished by the time they get it. Alpha's do everything, I think. But again, it all depends on what sort of crit you're looking for =)

Dawn Embers said...

Natalie - Thanks for the comment. That is interesting. Most of what I found discussed how much beta readers did and how alpha reader didn't look at the line by line types because first drafts are more about the overall story/character and less about the technical edits.javascript:void(0)

Natalie Murphy said...

I can see that, yes. But I've found that betas look at overall more. *Shrugs* Guess it all depends on the critique group, like you said =)