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Alpha and Beta readers

Recently, we had an interesting discussion at our writing group. At what point in the writing process to you turn something over to a first reader? There’s a lot of variables, but in the end the answer amounts to “it depends on the reader and the author.”

Some first readers thrive on offering broad, sweeping advice, and have a higher threshold for rough edges, and hence gravitate toward getting their read on earlier in the process. We termed these “alpha” readers, and the analogy to software alpha testers is apt. Alpha readers are a lifesaver when you’re stuck and need advice on how to move on, but moderation is important. In general, an offer from someone to be a first reader is a valuable thing; your story only gets one chance to make a first impression, so alpha readers should be used sparingly, if at all.

Other readers (and if you don’t know a potential first reader very well, better to assume they’re in this bucket) expect something closer to a finished product, and gravitate toward getting involved later in the process. The term “beta readers” seems in wide use to describe this kind of reader. Inherent in being a first reader is offering advice, critique, and suggestions–nobody expects a story to be perfect at this point–but it should be pretty close.

In the end what’s important is that authors and first readers communicate with and respect each other, and set mutual expectations accordingly.

Writers: how do you manage the process opening your work to outsiders?

2 Comments

  1. I really like getting feedback – both as a way to gauge the response to my work (what’s working, what’s not), but also as a way to gauge my own assessment of my work (is what *I* thought was working actually working, etc.).

    I usually use Alpha readers for spot checks – especially on the first and second chapters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve Beta read someone else’s novel and really not enjoyed the first two chapters (e.g. if I’d bought the book, I’d not have read on), but pressed ahead because I had agreed to and ended up liking enough things about the book that the first two chapters became less of an issue in hindsight. But an agent or publisher would have stopped at them. So, I like to get those two chapters read alone, read often, and read by many people.

    For Beta reads, I like to have about 4 people – two on the first pass and two after I’ve revised a second time.

    ps. I heard a rumor from John Murphy that you sold the Knuth Number! True? If so, congrats 🙂

  2. Thanks, Miranda,

    I’m trying not to sound too negative. The manuscript’s in the best shape it’s been in. It just needs to be even better, and it will.

    And yes, Knuth Number sold to On The Premises. 🙂

Micah Joel

Purveyor of things geeky