When you complete a story and edited it to the point where you think it is good, that is when you turn to beta and alpha readers. Critique groups aren’t the same as beta and alpha readers, however. They are two separate but both helpful strategies to getting feedback on your stories.
The main difference between the two being that critique groups usually focus on more than one story while beta and alpha reads are specialized readings of a text. While critique groups are made of writers who all are looking for a critique, beta and alpha readers are selected by the author.
The question I get the most about beta and alpha readers is when to work with them over a critique group. That all comes down to what the author is looking to get out of the read. Do you need a closer inspection of your text? Is it a longer work that would do better reading in its entirety vs breaking it up into sections for a group meeting? Those types of questions can help you decide when to take your manuscript to a critique group over a beta or alpha reading.
This article is going to get into the difference between beta and alpha readers, when to bring them into the revision process, how to find them, and more. There will also be a chance to download a pack of questions that you can use on your own beta and alpha readers.
Difference Between Beta and Alpha Readers
What are alpha readers? They are similar to beta readers but are reserved for reviewing the unpolished or first draft before the beta readers. Often these readers are writers or readers with the ability to look past grammar mistakes and the like to provide valuable criticisms about where the story stands and what parts need to be fleshed out or removed.
What are beta readers? They are volunteered or paid readers that author’s pick to read their draft in order to receive specialized feedback on certain issues in the draft or on the story as a whole. Like mentioned above, beta readers are meant to come after the initial alpha read and subsequent clean up. The draft beta readers see should be close to finished as possible, allowing for them to focus on the bigger picture and the overall story.
Do you need both alpha and beta readers? It is a great practice to have both. There are several professional writers who build teams of both that they use throughout their career such as Brandon Sanderson who has trained and knowledgeable alpha and beta readers who have read a wide breath of his work. This allows for critiques and feedback specific to the author and their stories.
Not everyone can have a team, but if you plan on turning your writing into a career, start building one. It will be a priceless resource that you can tap into. In short, the main difference between beta and alpha readers is that one assess your draft at the beginning and the other does it after all of the edits have been made.
What do Beta and Alpha Readers Do?
Alpha readers can come into your draft at any point in the writing or drafting process. Some authors like to bring them in before they even finish their draft. Doing this allows the writer to get an idea of if they are heading in the right direction. In my experience, this is very common with self-published authors.
By having an alpha reader come into your draft during the writing process, they can address concerns about:
- Overall plot
- Underdeveloped storytelling elements
- Plot holes
Instead of providing in-depth critiques like beta readers, alpha readers should only focus on the broader strokes and provide feedback.
On the other hand, beta readers dig deeper into the story and are more a representation of your target base. Alpha readers should be knowledgeable about story and the genre you’re writing in, but beta readers should be more knowledgeable about the genre than the story. So, instead of helping you pinpoint where the dialogue is unnatural, they will tell you how the story resonated with them.
It’s the difference between getting a critique that says the dialogue is stilted here(alpha) and the reader saying that they didn’t believe the dialogue(beta). Alpha’s can help address how to fix the issue, while beta’s help pinpoint deeper issues more related to the effect on the reader.
How to Find beta or alpha readers
Since alpha readers need to be accustomed to rough drafts and storytelling techniques, it’s best to find alpha readers in other writers. I’ll get into more below about what types of people make good beta and alpha readers vs which ones you should avoid. To find the types of writers that are willing and able to help, Reddit, Facebook, Codex, and other social media platforms are great ways to send feelers out.
This is the best way to do it if you don’t have your own group of writer friends and supporters to tap into. Doing it through tossing this type of wide net, means that you’ll have to weed through the slush of people who aren’t actually going to be helpful. Personally, I do this through asking questions in the post.
If someone responds without answering the questions, that tells me that they aren’t going to pay close attention or follow along with what I need them to read for. Other people do this by setting up small interviews with the people who respond. That way they can get a read on a person through a chat or video call.
Whichever way you test your potential beta and alpha readers, still test them. Don’t just take whoever says yes to you asking. I made this mistake my first go out of the gate and out of the 10 people who initially said yes, 1 of them ended up actually doing it. A lot of people want to read drafts and pretend they are editors. They aren’t doing it to help you but to help themselves.
So it’s sometimes hard to weed through all of the crap to find the gold. That’s why there’s also the option of hiring beta or alpha readers. There are even professionals who do this service for a living or side gig. They are well versed in the needs of an author. If you can afford it, then this is a great route because you can be sure that the feedback you’ll get is done to your liking. When it’s not, you can get a refund from most services.
Another place to check are other message boards outside of Reddit or Discord. There are free private channels that you can go to find critiques shared between authors. An example would be the Allegory Critiques group. This is an invitation only novel beta read group. To get in, you must contact the moderator and show a willingness to give back to the community as much as you take away.
How Many Beta and Alpha Readers are necessary?
This is a common question that I get when it comes to the beta and alpha read process. It’s understandable. When I first started out, I had to do a lot of digging to figure out the magic number and then lived experience taught me the rest.
Deciding how many beta and alpha readers you’re going to need comes down, in my experience, to how long your story is. When it comes to short stories, the max should be 3 of each. Longer works, however, can have up to 10 alpha and beta readers.
The one thing I noticed isn’t talked a lot about when it comes to the amount of readers you need is how many you initially need to agree. Finding beta and alpha readers is like building a newsletter list. These are people you want to stay engaged and respond to your questions.
It sounds easy. But trust me, it’s not.
For example, the most recent time I went on a search for alpha and beta readers, I put feelers out in several places: Reddit, Facebook, personal circle, and critique group. In total, I got 30 yeses. Which was great! But the work wasn’t done yet, through those yeses, only about 15 actually had the skills and time required to do the reading.
Of those 15, I got emails and sent an intro email that had more info about the reading, story, and what would be required of them. Most of this information was in the initial blast about the need for readers, but the email allowed me to see who was willing to respond. You don’t want beta or alpha readers who don’t respond to your emails because more than likely they won’t respond to your manuscript or the questions you ask of them. Out of the 15 that I sent emails to, 6 of them actually responded and agreed to the role.
So, if you are aiming to have 10 alpha AND beta readers for your work, best to shoot for a higher number and work down to the best 10 who are responsive and knowledgeable. This will save you wasting your time with 20 people who initially said yes but then over time fell off or disappeared leaving you with just a handful.
When is it time to get a beta or alpha read?
When it comes to alpha readers, the perfect time to get them is anywhere between when you start the story and when you finish the first draft. It’s really up to you. If you want to know how you’re doing while writing and if you’re story is making sense and going anywhere, getting alpha readers involved is a great way to do that.
It’s also a great way to get distracted from the task at hand. That’s why I advise writers who have a hard time finishing a draft to leave the alpha read until the end. Focus on finishing the story before worrying about the issues in the draft.
Beta readers should only be brought in after the draft has gone through several revisions. Beta reads come when the draft is publishable or query/submission ready.
Bad and Good Types of Beta and Alpha Readers
Because they are easy targets a lot of writers tend to go to their friends, families, and co-workers. This is a huge mistake. Unless your friends, families, and co-workers are also writers or readers within the genre this is a 100% bad idea. Even if they are writers and readers, don’t bring family, friends, and loved ones into the process. It’s hard to get a subjective and knowledgeable opinion from people that are so close to you.
Bad traits of beta readers:
- Readers outside of story’s genre
Good traits of beta readers:
- Supportive readers
- Honest and fair critics
- Readers within story’s genre
Bad traits of alpha readers:
- Unsupportive writers
- Personal critiquer; someone who critiques the writer and not the story
Good traits of alpha readers:
- Skilled or knowledgeable writers
- Careful readers with the ability to read past grammar issues
Sample Beta and Alpha Reader Questions
Sign up for my writing group and get a free download of questions to use with your alpha and beta readers.