Alpha Readers vs. Beta Readers and When to Find Them

Updated on March 1, 2024.

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Last week, I wrote about the follow-up drafts you should work to create once you’ve let that first draft rest for a bit. One piece of advice I reiterated throughout is that each draft should build on the various pieces of editing needed to turn rough drafts into polished pieces. Another vital piece of the book publishing process is deciding when to bring in outside eyes for your work.

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What’s an Alpha Reader?

Alpha readers are exactly what they sound like: they are the very first eyes on your story other than your own. Because your novel is in rough shape, alpha readers provide high-level feedback on originality, plausibility, and continuity. They apply those concepts to your plot, development, character arcs, pacing, and dialogue. An alpha reader can be a casual reader, an author or editor in your genre, or even an editor-author.

The goal with alpha readers is to find a pattern in the myriad of suggestions offered to you. One person complaining about one scene or section can likely be taken with a grain of salt. Four or five readers mentioning the same broad issues across the story may be worth at least a second look. Either way, alpha readers are there to help your story train stay on the tracks you intended to build.

What’s a Beta Reader?

Beta readers are a more targeted type of pre-publishing reader. They are experienced in your particular genre and come with a deeper understanding of the principles of storytelling. Beta readers understand what will most affect your readers (good) or what will pull them out of your story (bad). You can count on beta readers for high-level feedback as well, but it will be much more targeted than alpha readers’ feedback.

Since they’re reading your manuscript post-revisions, beta readers approach their review from the mindset of your ideal, target readers. You may hope your alpha readers enjoy that first or second draft as much as you do. With beta readers, you hope they find the speedbumps instead.

When to Look for Each

Alpha readers are usually sought in the early drafting stages. If not after that rough first draft, then most definitely after you’ve worked through some of your story’s structural issues. At this point, general feedback on high-level story categories like interest level, conflicts, development, and consistency are the most helpful for revising your manuscript.

Beta readers, on the other hand, don’t come into the picture until you’re essentially done with self-editing. You’ve smoothed out your pacing and character arcs, your dialogue and action scenes, and even your word choice and chapter organization. You’re nearing the editing phase of things, even if it feels like you’ve been doing that all along. Beta readers help you hone the story that little bit more before you turn over your manuscript to an outside editor.

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I sought out alpha reader volunteers roughly a week before I finished my first draft. It’s not unusual to use these readers at this (very) early point, especially if you are particular about the type of reader you’re looking for and the feedback your manuscript most needs. I came up with a questionnaire asking eleven questions about a variety of story problems. This list was based not just on what I already thought were going to be problem areas. I also compiled my questions based on the type of alpha reader who volunteered.

When it comes time to find beta readers, I doubt I’ll need to create that same kind of list. That reader (or those readers) will be knowledgeable about the genre, the target readers, and the more specific aspects of storytelling that apply to my particular manuscript.

Now that you know a little more about alpha readers and beta readers, hopefully you’ll find a trusted few to help you through the revision process. Writing is a solitary venture, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

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