The Difference between Alpha Readers and Beta Readers

I used to think of writers as solitary creatures, writing their books in isolation, until I heard about Alpha Readers and Beta Readers. I didn’t realize how collaborative the creative writing process really is until I became serious about writing. The moment you allow someone to take a look at your work, you’re no longer alone. 

After all, writers are nothing without readers. 

First, a note about receiving feedback. 

There’s an awkwardness that we, as writers, need to confront early on: accepting criticism. Embracing constructive criticism and acknowledging that your writing isn’t without flaws asks for self-awareness about your skills as a writer. While you are the final decider on what feedback to take and which feedback to dismiss, don’t let alternate perspectives deter you, because receiving criticism (whether or not you agree) is a positive step towards improving your writing. Especially don’t let anyone who reacts negatively or unhelpfully stop you. Some people can be jerks, motivated by something other than your writing. Feel free to ignore feedback from people who aren’t kind or diplomatic. 

Be ready to communicate with your readers about your expectations for their feedback. If you disagree with the feedback, do not grill the reader. You can ask clarifying questions but do not challenge the reader. If what you intended is not received by the reader, then look at your words on the page. Be open to different points of view. Distinguish between preference, clarity, and craft. Readers and, eventually, editors will always challenge you to advance your skills as you execute your story. 

Second, a note about how scary it is to share your work.

Whether your reader is a friend, a partner, or a peer, sharing your creative product can feel scary and vulnerable, especially if it’s someone whose opinion you highly respect. Novice writers sometimes think their first draft is a final draft. It’s not. It’s a first, and probably terrible, draft. That’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be at this stage.  

Newer writers sometimes set high standards for themselves that trap them in the beginning of the story. Doing so creates anxiety about how someone might perceive their writing, and, by extension, the writer’s personal worth. Divorce your ego from your product. No one is perfect, and no one writes a brilliant first draft. It’s normal to get caught up in perfecting the first chapter because you want to impress your readers, and frankly, as writers often come to learn, it’s much more important to trudge through to the end of the story instead. 

What are Alpha Readers?

Alpha readers are the initial readers of your work, also known as the “First Reader.” The good thing about an Alpha Reader is that you don’t have to submit a full manuscript or story. You can invite a reader to review your work as early as your first chapter. Often, these people are friends, fellow writers, or fellow readers. 

The purpose of an Alpha Reader is to review the general concept and “big picture” of the story. What are their impressions of the characters and plot? What’s working and what isn’t working? Be clear about what you want. If you want something as simple as having them point out typos and spelling errors (which I know is a weakness of mine when I’m starting out on a rough draft of a story), then be specific about that, but keep in mind that this is not a final draft and your friend may not be an expert. That said, many people are readers, and Alpha Readers can provide valuable insights beyond punctuation. Creating a list of questions can help. Here are a few examples:

  • Do you find the characters believable? If not, why?
  • Could you picture the story in your head? Which moments were the most vivid?
  • Were you interested all the way through?
  • Was it a tough read?
  • Were you hooked from the beginning?
  • When did your mind start to wander?
  • What do you wish would have been addressed?
  • What are you excited to know more about?

You can expect an Alpha Reader to ask questions about your intentions for the story, such as genre and character motivations. 

What are Beta Readers?

A Beta Reader is someone who digs into editorial details like plot, character development, spelling, grammar, or the thematic elements of a more complete version of the story. These are the readers who read the later and complete versions of your story. You are in control of the process, and you can assign a Beta Reader to the specifications of what you’re looking for: story continuity and inconsistencies, character behavior and dialogue, believability in terms of genre or time period, other issues such as race or gender representation (these readers are known as Sensitivity Readers, see below for further information), or any other issues you may leave open to the reader to find and address.

Personally, something I often seek out with a Beta Reader is character development, atmosphere, and if I’ve conveyed the right sense of emotion for the kind of story I’m telling. That can relate not only to the words I’m using but also how my characters behave and speak to each other. 

I have a story that involves Native American characters. Once I finish my manuscript, I’ll seek out another kind of reader: a Sensitivity Reader who can see if I’m using appropriate, authentic,  and inoffensive descriptors for my characters and setting. 

For example, if you write a manuscript that’s fantasy-based with knights, dragons, and fairies, an Alpha Reader can provide an objective perspective on the story as a whole or in pieces, whether or not they’re interested or versed in the genre. Meanwhile, you may use a Beta Reader who specializes in Urban Fantasy or Medieval Fantasy and can help refine the details of your story and world so that the text reads as authentic and without anachronisms. Then you might use a secondary Beta Reader who specializes in linguistics and dialect and can help get down the language of your world. 

Then, by the time your story reaches an editor, you’ve already rooted out massive issues with your story. That makes editing and publishing more streamlined and makes you a more professional writer.

How to find readers

You can find Alpha Readers within your own home if you have a friend or family member who is willing to read. Also, talk to your classmates or teachers. You can reach out to writers’ workshops, in-person or online, web forums and social media pages that specialize in writing and reading, and so on. 

Creative collaboration always asks you to share a part of yourself with others. Your writing community is there to support you and not to tear you down. If someone does tear you down, dismiss all of their feedback because they are likely coming from a place that has nothing to do with your writing or your project. Art and writing constantly change and grow in the same way that any market changes over time. So long as you understand that your story is not impervious to change, you are prepared to take the next steps of your writing journey. Alpha Readers and Beta Readers will be right there with you to help you find the best version of your story.  


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