Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Writing A Novel - Beta Readers (and Alpha Readers, too!)

A to Z Challenge B
When you are writing a novel you are immersed in a world of your own. Everything plays out in your mind and, if you are writing fiction, you exist in a completely different universe than the one you breathe in. Within the confines of your imagination everything begins to makes sense, the characters are all vividly alive and the details are clear. You sit down to a computer, or with a notebook and do your best to explain that which exists in your mind. Alpha and beta readers are those wonderful people that help you make sure you've done your best job before sending your words out into the public arena.

What is an Alpha Reader?

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that writing is a form of telepathy. He sets a scene, describes the details and then asks, "Do we see the same thing?" This is the first question all writers ask.  The problem is, when we first write there is no unbiased audience to answer. This is where we employ the use of Alpha Readers. King follows up his question with, "We'd have to get together to compare notes to make absolutely sure," and while I must admit that Mr. King and I never had that sit-down, you can be sure he had that conversation with some other people. The first person he spoke to  was his alpha reader.

Your alpha reader is the first person you show your writing to. You don't waste their time. They are there to check for readability. Ask them to read your first sentence, then see if they want to proceed. Leave it up to them. The point is to see if someone else wants to enter your fictional world, to see if your story is intriguing enough. Jason R. Peters does an excellent job of explaining the alpha reading process on his blog, and offers up this graphic:
Alpha Readers
The alpha reader must be brutally honest and let you know when it just isn't worth it to go on. Once you've perfected the writing to a point where the entire story is fleshed out and clear, you move on to your Beta Reader.

What is a Beta Reader?

The term "beta" should not be new to those who try to be on the cutting edge of the tech world. Oftentimes when new software is released, or before a new website is launched, companies look for beta testers to be their first users. These people are granted early access to the programming under the agreement that they will report glitches, comment on their experience(s) and, in general, help the company perfect the material before it's public launch. This is exactly what a beta reader is for writers.
WISE GEEK defines a beta reader as follows:
A beta reader is someone who agrees to look over a piece of fiction for spelling, grammar, characterization, and continuity errors. Unlike a true editor, a beta reader is typically unpaid, and he or she sees the work at a very rough state. Many authors like to use beta readers to improve the quality of their work before they submit it for professional editing and critique, and beta readers are usually profusely thanked in acknowledgments, in recognition of the time and energy which they invested in the work.
The difference between the beta reader and the alpha reader is the detail. Your beta reader goes beyond story and helps you find where you need semicolons, spell checks and the such. Your beta readers are your last stop before heading out to the professionals. They help you spit shine your writing for its greatest shine.

How Do You Find Alpha and Beta Readers?

Alpha and beta readers are wonderful, giving people. They are not paid for their services and they could be the most important people on your path to success. Where are they hiding? They're not. They are just waiting for you to brave enough to ask!

I had my best luck finding readers without leaving the comfort of my desk chair.

My Alpha Readers

Since alpha readers see my writing at its rawest stage, I haven't been too brave in my endeavors. I have one alpha reader. He is my husband. Now, I happen to be lucky enough that I am married to a high school English teacher that loves to read, but that doesn't mean you are out of luck if you are not.

I would suggest that you find a friend or family member who is an avid reader. Don't ask grandma if she only watches "her programs" and hasn't picked up a book since grade school - you need a reader. You also need to be able to accept honest responses from them and they need to be able to give them. Be clear when you ask them to read for you that (in this particular situation) you are not looking for that unconditional, blind encouragement and praise they normally offer up; you need the truth. Explain to them that should stop reading whenever they feel like they want to and that you are willing to listen to why they made that decision.

My Beta Readers

After going through the alpha process, I am a little more brave. This is when I send my words out to strangers. There are two places I have found great success, however, in both instances, I have made the agreement to be a beta readers as well. When you are willing to help others plenty of doors of opportunity open wide for you.
  1. Twitter If you are a writer and you are not on Twitter, then you are seriously missing out. There are tons of writer chats and groups supporting one another. I found a beta reader in the #NaNoPals community (great NaNoPals Blog) and have tons of buddies in the #StoryDam (chats on Thursdays at 8pm EST) community.
  2. Figment.com This website is a ton of fun for both readers and writers. It's a great place for authors to connect with their audience. If you are a writer yourself, you can upload your own writing to the site for readers to check out, review and give hearts to. I've put some of my writing out there and, I have joined a couple of critique groups that have been fun and friendly.
Beyond the Internet, there is also the wonderful world of face-to-face writer groups. I am happy to say that a new one has cropped up locally for me that I will be going to meet with on Saturday for the first time. If you are looking for a local writing group of your own, check your local library and, of course, Meetup.com, where, if you can't find one, you can create one!
Thanks for reading!

Have you used beta readers yet for your writing?
Where have you found your beta buddies?
Who would you choose to be your alpha reader, and why?


  1. I used to go to a writing group but the problem was that everyone was just too polite face to face. From my experience, on-line groups and forums tend to be a bit more honest and critical, which is good.

    I'll check out the sites you suggested.

  2. I have a beta reader look at my finished book. I never had an Alpha reader look at my work. Interesting post. :)

  3. Thanks, Karen. I was new to the term "alpha reader" when I began the research for this post, but when I read Jason R. Peters' post, I realized that's exactly the hell I put my husband through. I noticed some places use the two terms alpha/beta reader as meaning the same thing, but I like the distinction of these two types of readers for the people who need the two levels of feedback!

  4. Kirsten, I agree. The first time I critiqued a writing in a face to face group the rest of the group looked at me as if I was the devil incarnate. I agreed with all of the positive points they had raised, but I offered some other suggestions (and I emphasized that that's all they were) about certain portions. I'm hoping this new group I am going to is ready to be brutally honest with me (I need it), but if they aren't, I've got my Internet buddies!

  5. Thanks for all of this helpful information.