Back in the bad old days (graduate school edition) I noticed my professors had one or more colleagues that they’d trade research papers and other written work with, to read over before submitting or publishing. It’s not only a good idea, it can be a real project and reputation saver!
Later, as I dove into the world of writing and publishing, the term beta reader popped up. It made sense. It sounded like what my professors did, and what writing groups do, so I needed to find some beta readers. Except, if they’re beta readers, who’s the alpha reader?
The people I talked to back then didn’t seem to know! Some people I talk to now, and writers who put out articles on the subject, don’t seem to know either. Typical answers follow the form of “An alpha reader is the first person you show it to and a beta reader is the second.” That’s not overly helpful.
Are they looking for different things?
What if you share it with two people at the same time?
Does a developmental editor count as either?
Does genre make a difference?
My answers (take them for what they’re worth):
- Yes, alpha and beta readers are looking for different things. Since you should edit between groups, they should look at a different draft, so what they find should be different. (We can get into the holy wars over what makes up a different draft later…)
- If you give a draft to more than one person without editing between, I’d consider them the same level of reader (otherwise we’re up to epsilon, omicron, and tau readers before we get serious work done…).
- No, a developmental editor, or a copy editor, isn’t the same thing as an alpha or beta reader. Editors are usually paid, while alpha and beta readers aren’t. It’s not fair to expect one to be the other.
- Genre always matters. It might not matter in determining who’s an alpha reader or a beta reader, but it might! Different people have different experiences and tastes. What they look for and what they report to you will differ based on their experience in the genre.
Practically speaking, I’m not sure the “whose an alpha reader and who’s a beta reader” argument really matters. It’s fine to stick with “alpha readers are the first group and beta readers are the second” (and you should definitely have multiple people in the beta group…). The qualities of your readers honestly matter more than what you call them (except when it doesn’t).
Ideally, your alpha and beta readers should reflect the audience you’re aiming for, or at least knowledgeable about that audience. And, they shouldn’t be people who are going to fanboy (or fan girl, or fan whatever) about you and your work. If they’re reluctant to give criticism, that won’t help you. (So, if you call the reader mom, you might not have the best reader on your hands).
It’s also a good idea to make sure you and your alpha/beta readers are on the same page about what you’re looking for from them. Genre matters so, I won’t tell you what to ask(a romance novel and an accounting textbook ain’t the same thing!). But you might want to work out a set of questions to ask your readers and even share that list with them in advance.
Are alpha/beta readers the same thing as a writing group? I’m going to say no. Writing group members might be your alpha/beta readers. But that’s not the same thing as bringing your work to a writer’s group. And writers’ groups are full of writers, which creates its own set of problems.
Your alpha/beta readers aren’t your editors. As people, they might choose to be alpha/beta readers but don’t expect them to give away their editor skills for free (and don’t expect a random friend to have the same skills as a trained editor).
The most important advice is to have someone read your stuff (even if mom’s the only one you can get at the moment). We can easily go blind to problems in our work and software ain’t that smart (even that ap on your phone that claims to be smarter than a million Chat GPTs and two million Jesuses!). Other people’s eyes will spot the stuff you miss and the stuff the software can’t understand well enough to look at.
It’s not always easy, dear reader. I don’t always like what I hear from my alpha/beta readers, but it helps the work go forward.
Make your work go forward, dear reader. And, I’ll see you next post.