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Thursday 5 December 2013

Alpha and Beta Readers

Step 1 - Find an avid reader!

So, now you have a first draft – what to do with it? The best advice is NOT to rush out and give it someone to read. Not someone you care about anyway. There is some great advice here at Taven Moore - the blog of Tami and Steven Moore . I found it very helpful. I know that there are those that say that the Alpha Reader is the author and that anyone else who reads the manuscript is a beta reader, but I agree with Tami, that there is a place for two distinct types of readers. This is how I personally define the two.

Alpha Readers

There are two stages to alpha readers.

Stage 1 alpha readers look at the shape of the story, its pace and tension. They gauge their empathy with the characters and their motivation. They judge the believability and integrity of the plot, and whether they care what happens next. They notice whether characters grow in response to the story, or whether they are simply inconsistent, and identify the strength of the characters voices.


Stage 1 alpha readers do NOT:
  • Care about grammar or spelling or even typos
  • Worry about the passive voice or use of adverbs
  • Wonder if there was a better way of saying something

Why? Because there’s a fair chance that what they are reading will end up being rewritten anyway, so who cares whether it is grammatically sound?

Stage 2 alpha readers do the hard slog of proof reading, kicking grammar butts, and toning up the flabby prose. The story is a great looker, but it needs to get fit.

Beta Readers

Readers are alpha until the manuscript is well-paced, has light and shade, tension carefully interwoven with light relief. A manuscript where characters have depth and tell their own stories with strong voices, where they grow and develop and discover something about themselves and where the protagonist draws empathy as the antagonist repels it. Unless the story demands a different loyalty that is. There should be a clear story arc, about which the sub-plots weave and dance, where characters act rationally according to their history and nature, except for the insane ones, of course.  

Only then is the manuscript turned over to the beta readers. They will instinctively do the same as the alpha readers, but because of all the hard work that has gone before, they are less likely to be distracted by problems with the big picture. Beta readers make a little mark in the margin when something snags their attention away from the story and onto the words, but they do not stop to wonder what was wrong. Beta readers follow the Neil Gaiman principle – if a reader says that something is wrong, they are almost certainly right. If they say what will put it right, they are almost certainly wrong. Beta readers should not be proof reading – they are far too valuable for that.

At the end of the process, the story should be silk smooth, the words flowing seamlessly from page to consciousness. Except of course that neither we nor our beloved alpha and beta readers are infallible, and that is why a professional editor is essential. That passage which was so good before, suddenly sparkles. The story sheds dead wood that had previously seemed essential, and yet is all the stronger for it. All this is to make the story the best that we can make it. It’s up to us to find the best story in the first place.

I hope to be looking for alpha readers towards the end of January. I will no doubt post about it again then, but do wave if you think you might be interested!


  1. You've broken it down really well, and I agree with your assessment. I'll admit I have trouble reading without line editing---tagging adverbs and redlining grammar oopsies is like an allergic reaction---so I'd probably be a horrible alpha reader. I don't even write my own stuff without line editing as I go. I've tried the whole "stream of consciousness" thing during a couple of NaNos, and while I see the benefit of that type of writing I don't seem to be able to adhere to it on a regular basis. By your definition that means I'm not even an alpha reader for my own work. :)

  2. You've put it very well, Dominic - all of these roles are important. I tend to do a lot of self editing before I let anyone else look at my work, but once I've got it to a point where I think it would benefit from feedback, it goes out to those selected few who I trust.

    I benefit considerably from both sides of the process - reading others' work and giving feedback is just as helpful to me as a writer as is receiving feedback on my own work.

  3. Having readers to flesh out plot and characterization is a must! I'm finishing up a revision myself and hoping for betas soon. :) Christy

  4. Just stopping to say Hello after seeing your comment over at September Mom's! Hope all is well with you!

  5. Very comprehensive, enlightening and well written. I guess when choosing an Alpha or Beta reader your needs must be clearly given to them, so they follow their role. One day I may get back to my novel and finish it :O) Good luck with your writing. Characters are very important to me when I'm reading a story.

  6. Happy Joyous Easter, Dom. I re-read an old post "Time of Wonder" and decided to see where you had gone.

  7. Hi Dominic...I've come over to visit since FB said we had 50 mutual friends, and well, if we have that much in common we should be friends. Just seems logical. I don't blog much about writing any longer. I ran out of things to say, but I exhibit my photography everyday. Hope you'll come and visit. Look forward to checking in on you. Cheers -Mac

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