“What is an alpha/beta reader?”
It’s a question I’ve heard several times: from people just starting to write, writers who have been writing privately for a few years and are now ready to make their stories more public, non-writers, and others. As both an alpha/beta reader for some writers and a writer myself, I’m here to explain the terms and what they include.
I’ve been beta reading for several years and it’s one of my favorite activities. (Personally, I classify it as a legitimate hobby.) It’s a rewarding, delightful experience to see where a story began and watch it morph into the final, polished shape. I have only two regrets:
- I don’t have enough time to do as much of it as I would like
- The wait for a favorite to be published can be agonizing, particularly if you are wanting to recommend it to your other friends. (Cue: occasional kicking said authors in the rear or hollering at them to hurry up and get the book published because you need to share it with others.)
What is alpha/beta reading?
An alpha reader or a beta reader is anyone who reads a book before it has been published, with the intent to help the author improve the work by giving them feedback on plot, characters, setting, continuity, and clarity of communication. You don’t have to be a professional editor or reviewer (in fact, it’s often better if you aren’t) in order to alpha/beta read. Also, you are NOT paid for it.
Basically, what these readers do is give the author a glimpse of what readers in general will think of the book, which helps the author refine it until it communicates the story for which they are aiming.
Alpha OR beta?
Alphas read a book as it is being written, typically with the author sending out each chapter as it’s finished. Betas read the book once it is completed- either the first draft or any subsequent draft.
What exactly they do:
There is no universal standard for ‘how to beta read’, just as there is no universal rule for ‘how to write’, but an alpha/beta reader’s chief duty can be summed up in two words: GIVE FEEDBACK.
Feedback: information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement. – New American Oxford Dictionary
So an alpha or beta reader simply tells the author their reactions to the story as a whole as well as the parts of the story:
- Plot: ‘Based on what’s happened so far, I think this is what will happen next….’ ‘I predict it ending like this….’ ‘That was a great twist, I didn’t see it coming!’ ‘I knew that was going to happen, it was obvious 5 chapters ago.’ ‘I’m totally lost and have no predictions and am just enjoying this ride.’ ‘This is really confusing and I have no idea what the main theme of this book is, or if it even has any theme.’
- Characters and relationships: ‘I love the first lead.’ ‘I prefer the second lead.’ ‘I sympathize so much with her best friend.’ ‘I don’t like the heroine because she makes so many stupid decisions.’ ‘I don’t understand why they keep saying this is a threat but not acting like it.’ ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE DID THAT.’ ‘DID HE REALLY JUST SAY THAT?’
- Setting: ‘I thought you said that this was science fiction, but it feels more like science fantasy.’ ‘I’m having a hard time picturing their surroundings.’ ‘You’ve described the scenery in such vivid detail that I feel like I’m there.’
- Plot holes: ‘It doesn’t make sense that she didn’t make more of a fuss about this.’ ‘Why didn’t they just cut the rope?’
- Continuity: ‘You said a week had passed but now you’re saying it’s Wednesday and if a week had passed, shouldn’t it be Friday?’ ‘I thought you said early on that she was shorter than he was but now you just said that she’s the same height.’
- Clarity: ‘I’m so confused about this scene. Are they saying — or —-?’ ‘Are you trying to indicate that child slavery is okay or are you trying to accurately portray this cultural attitude toward it?’
What they don’t usually do:
- Editing: if they notice grammatical or spelling errors (especially if it’s an error that keeps popping up), it’s okay to point them out, but in general, an alpha/beta is supposed to comment on the elements of the story, not the technical specifics.
- Telling the author how to write: ‘You should do this here or that there.’ ‘You should have written this then.’ ‘You should do this in this way, not that way.’ Believe me, this is one of the fastest ways to an author concluding they don’t want someone to beta for them ever again. Making suggestions is a better method: ‘This confused me, perhaps if you explained it a little more it would help?’ ‘Maybe this scene would be more powerful if you used the show-don’t-tell method?’
- Insisting that the author change the morals or ethics of the story to match their opinion. They can state their own beliefs or opinion: ‘I personally believe that God is more important than family’ but shouldn’t make it a corrective comment: ‘she’s wrong, God is more important.’
A few other things to keep in mind:
- When beta or alpha reading a first draft it’s especially important to keep in mind that it IS a first draft and thus often messy with typos and grammatical errors. That’s why authors write second drafts. Betas/alphas can avoid a lot of author annoyance if they concentrate on plot and characters instead of nitpicking their grammar and spelling in a first draft. (NOTE: If you don’t think they’re planning to write a second draft or edit whatever version you’re reading, then please do talk to them about it, but otherwise don’t stress it.)
- PAY ATTENTION TO DETAILS. The author uses those to set the scene. If they tell you that someone is from Italy and then go on to show mannerisms that seem overly dramatic, stop and THINK for a moment before you tell them that the heroine is ridiculous. Do a bit of research- google Italian mannerisms. OR state it as an opinion, not a flat condemnation. ‘Hey, she seems too dramatic here’ vs. ‘She does this way too much.’ That’s the difference between giving feedback and telling the author what to do.
- Do NOT assume that just because the author has written the book, they agree with every perspective, attitude or choice made in the book. They’re authors. They’re SUPPOSED to present alternative viewpoints to make readers think.
- If you become uncomfortable with the story for whatever reason, it’s perfectly okay to just tell the author, explain why, and ask to stop betaing. Most authors would rather have you not read something that’s outside your comfort zone than leave you with a bad taste in your mouth regarding their writing because you pushed yourself to finish something that wasn’t your style.
- Make sure you tell the author what you like about a story. There is no faster way to an author’s heart than honest, positive encouragement.
- If you’ve volunteered for betaing, it’s always a good idea to ask the author what kind of feedback they would like. (I know, genius idea, right?) Some writers just want general feedback on the plot. Others are looking for detailed comments on their characterization. Still others prefer as much chapter by chapter commentary as you are willing to give. It never hurts to ask, especially if you’re unsure. Authors love betas who ask them what they want.
How do you become one?
This is the easiest part. Many authors will offer a book for alpha or beta reading via their blog or Facebook page and then you can volunteer. You can also leave a comment on their blog or FB, saying ‘hey, I like these snippets you’ve been posting and I’d love to read the book when you’re done, if you need or want a beta reader.’
One of my best friends and I connected when I left a comment just like that on her blog. A few years and several hundred emails and conversations later, we’re inseparable and continue to constantly alpha read each other’s writing. My other best friend and I met similarly, when she offered her latest book for beta reading and I signed up. We’re now brainstorm and writing partners.
NOTE: I am not targeting anyone in particular with this post. It’s simply a compilation of several years beta experience + dealing with beta readers of my own writing.
Next Monday we’ll talk about some things for authors to keep in mind regarding their betas and beta relationship and on Friday I’ll be back to discuss some classic children’s books. Until then, Merry Writing… and beta reading!