Alpha readers read along as you are writing your story. The first draft, rough as it is, often chapter by chapter as you write. Alpha readers are your close confidante and they often have a big impact on your story. They spot issues along the way and help you to course-correct. I recall one instance where I had a character deliver a very important piece of dialog to another character and one of my alpha readers reminded me that the character who was speaking wasn't actually present in the scene. Oops.
I also use my alpha readers as sounding boards for ideas. These are the first people to see anything I've written.
It is a good idea to have at least three alpha readers, but no more than five.
The type of feedback you can get from an alpha reader varies according to the knowledge and abilities of each one. I like to have a range that I work with who will look at my story from different aspects. The bottom line is that you need to know the skills and limitations of each alpha reader you use. You can also hire professional alpha readers.
Never argue with your alpha reader. You don't have to blindly take their advice; it IS your story, after all. If they took something you wrote differently than intended and they give comments on what they thought you meant to do, tell them what you were trying to accomplish and ask them where they think the writing led them in an unintended direction.
Because the work is in such an early stage, an alpha reader may have to reread sections when they are changed.
Once you have finished writing your story and you think it's polished and in good shape, this is the time to call in beta readers.
Beta readers are the average reader for your target audience. They aren't writers, editors, publishers, or professional reviewers unless those are your target audience.
Since true beta readers are NOT professionals (and that means they are not paid) you will need to orient them on the expectations of the role.
You will also need a method for delivering the material to them and for them to provide feedback to you. What has worked well for me is to create a folder for each of my beta readers on Google Drive. They each get a copy of the file in a folder shared only with that specific beta reader. I don't want them seeing each others comments and influencing each other. Using this method, I can monitor their comments as they go. I can also make updates to the files of other beta readers who may not be as far along and they get to see the "fixed" version when they get to that section.
Just as with alpha readers, don't debate with your beta readers regardless of whether you agree with the comment. When I look over comments form my beta readers, most often those comments result in a change to the manuscript. It's usually small. Rather than looking for justification to accommodate the comment, I look for justification for why I would not. Maybe they have a question about something they should know, and I may feel that I have already provided the answer. Either way, they are asking the question so something threw them off of knowing the answer. A little clarification would is probably a good idea. On the other hand, maybe they are asking a question that I want them to ask. In which case, I chuckle and move on to the next comment. I do not reply to every comment. Beta readers are not expected to know why they reacted in a certain way, only that they reacted in a certain way. It's our job as the writer to figure that out and address it accordingly.
I do not use every comment. I do thank them for their comments and I let them know that most of their comments (when they have raised an issue) resulted in some change. This lets them know that what they are doing matters to me and that it is having an impact. They know they are appreciated and makes them more willing to beta read other things in the future.
I have provided a sample below of the instruction I give to my beta readers for my YA fantasy series. This example should clarify any remaining questions you may have about the role of a beta reader.
|Sample Email Instructions to Beta Readers
You are receiving this email because you told me directly that you were interested in being a beta reader for my Young Adult fantasy series.
Young Adult (YA) simply means that the main character (MC) is in the age range of 15-21, and that the content of the story should be age appropriate for a reader who is also in that range. This holds true even though YA books are often read by much older readers.
What is expected of a beta reader?
A beta reader is usually a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing or user acceptance testing in software), who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author. A beta reader is not a professional and can therefore provide advice, comments, and opinions from the perspective of an average reader. This feedback is used by the writer to fix remaining issues with plot, pacing, and consistency. The beta reader also serves as a sounding board to see if the book has had the intended emotional impact.
Beta reading is not a review or a critique. It is about your experience reading the story.
- How did it make you feel? Emotional impact is one of the most important things for me to know:
Did certain sections make you happy, sad, bored, excited, angry, worried or anything else? I want to know about any of these if they happen. And if you become so bored that you give up -- hopefully that won't happen -- let me know where you quit.
- Did some part make you cheer or feel happy?
- Did some part feel slow?
- Did some part feel choppy?
- Did something confuse you or not make sense?
- Did something not seem consistent?
- Is there a character (or characters) that you really liked or disliked?
Your experience is purely subjective and there is no right or wrong. You don't have to try to figure out WHY you reacted in a certain way. You don't have to try to solve any problems. I just need to know what areas of the story caused what reactions. I want the good news and the bad news.
Sometimes there are typing errors that spell/grammar check doesn't see. It can be omitted words, double words, wrong words. Stuff happens. If you observe some of those, I would appreciate it if you flagged them. But this is NOT your primary purpose so you don't need to be "on the hunt."
How to provide your feedback:
The file is shared with you in your Google Drive "shared with me" folder under your account using this email address. No one will see your feedback except me. Simply insert a comment at the appropriate place in the text:
- Highlight a paragraph, sentence, word or what have you. (Being specific is important.)
- Click Insert > Comment (or press Ctrl + Alt + M).
- Type your feedback in the comment window.
- Click Comment.
- Deadline: [provide date]
If you have any questions regarding beta reading or about this or other stories I am writing, I have set up the following email for this purpose:
And of course, while this book is not yet published, I do retain the story and characters as my own intellectual property. Characters are completely fictional and are not based on any other person or character, though I do freely take inspiration anywhere and everywhere.
I'm really excited about sharing Mira's story with you! I hope you enjoy it and I am looking forward to hearing your feedback!
Adam K. Watts
How to Find Beta Readers
Are friends and Family a good resource? The short answer to that is, no. Friends and family will usually be too concerned about hurting your feelings to be effective. That's because they care about you more than they care about your work. Also, they may also "agree" to be a beta reader because they feel obligated due to your relationship, and then you're siting there, wondering why they haven't made any progress reading your story. Unless the friend or family member is an avid reader of your genre, and THEY ask YOU to be one of your beta readers, don't go there. If you happen to be talking about your story, you can mention you are looking for beta readers. This let's them know the door is open, but let them decide whether to walk through it without any prompting from you. In fact, if they ask, it might be better to seem just slightly resistant to the idea. But at that point I wouldn't say, no. Just don't expect anything from them. Your relationship is more important than having them as a beta reader.
If I can't use people I know, how am I supposed to find beta readers? That's the tricky part, isn't it? For the most part, you will need to find strangers. Fortunately, you have access to millions of strangers right at your fingertips. The Internet. On Facebook alone, there are a ton of reader groups, people who love to read the type of story you write. Find these groups and join. Post a message saying you are an author looking for reader feedback. Have them send you a private message if they are interested. (You aren't going to want to share emails and such in the group discussion.) You could also post on other social media, but specify you are looking for reader feedback. Yes, you will also get people trying to sell you services, but just ignore those. That's not what you're looking for with this action, and you certainly don't want to mix those discussions in with your potential betas. And as I mentioned previously, keep in mind that you want your betas to be the average reader for your target audience.
But if they are strangers, how do I know I can trust them? How do I know if they are any good? Short answer, you don't know if you can trust them or if they will be any good. Only time will tell. Follow the instructions I gave above for how to deal with beta feedback.
Will they steal my work? The odds of them trying to steal your work is negligible. If you use the method I detailed above for providing your betas with the story, you will have proof that they got it from you and that it's yours. You will have an electronic trail. But again, chances of this are so small that you shouldn't waste energy worrying about it. Put that energy into writing your story.
Other Types of Reviews
There are many other types of reviews and critiques you can get for your writing project, some you pay for and some you do not. One good method is to find (or create) a small group of writers who provide reviews and support for each other within the group. The larger and more random the group, the more likely you will be to get bad advice. For example, posting material to a FB writer group with hundreds or thousands of members will get you more wrong answers than right ones and in the end you will likely select the answers you like best rather than the ones that are the most correct. False information is highly prolific, particularly when it is free.
You can also hire professional editors, proofreaders, developmental editors, etc. (None of those serve the same purpose as a beta reader and the types of review they deliver are completely different from beta.) These types of reviews can be extremely valuable. However, don't assume that everyone offering the service is good at the job. Find one that is reputable. Establish their qualifications and that they have obtained good results from previous clients. If you find someone whose rates seem to be very low, the quality will likely be commensurate. Pass.
I believe it was Stephen King who said that the two most important things for a writer to do are to write and to read. I wholeheartedly agree. Find the best authors you can and read everything they've written. Award winning authors who write in the same genre as you do, whose work you admire, are the best choices for this. But don't just enjoy the work; pay attention to what that author is doing. Probably ninety percent of the questions I see online from newer writers would be answered if they had done this.
I highly recommend taking the Writers of the Future Writing Workshop. It's free and online. I've done it; it is excellent!