But before we start, I’d just like to insert these disclaimers. Firstly, I’m not a writing coach or anything like that, just a writer who loves learning about writing and sharing my experiences with everyone who is interested.
Secondly, writers view alpha and beta teams vastly differently. Some swear by alpha and/or beta teams, others don’t use them at all. We all have to find a system that works for us.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get going.
About Alpha Readers
When some authors talk about alpha readers, they might mean the first group of readers who offer feedback on their upcoming novels. These authors usually have a second team, or in this case, the beta team, who will read the manuscript later than the alphas. In this definition of an alpha team, they function in the same way as the betas, which we’ll chat about in the next section.
In other cases, and this is closer to my understanding of the concept, authors might refer to their critique partners as their alpha readers. These might be other authors or writing professionals, close friends or relatives who offer their input during the writing process.
These are often people who read the manuscript as the author writes and immediately offer their feedback on each new chapter. Sometimes, the alpha team knows all kinds of intimate details about the story that readers don’t, like how it will end. This helps them keep an eye out for long-term stuff, such as foreshadowing, world-building elements, and character development.
About Beta Readers
A beta reader is someone who reads an author’s story before it is published. Most of the authors I know will typically contact their beta teams after a round of self-editing, but before the manuscript goes to the editor (though when the beta read happens varies from author to author). Some authors might ask their betas to read the manuscript again after it has been edited.
A beta’s main goal is to share their thoughts on the story. What they liked, what bored them, whether or not the plot made sense, and that kind of thing. They serve as a sounding board for the readers of the world and help us understand how the book will be received by various audiences. It’s always a bonus when betas pick up on typos or grammatical issues, but that isn’t a must.
Some beta readers can also function as sensitivity readers, but this is also a bonus. I’ve written a full post about sensitivity readers, which I’ll publish next week, so look out for that one.
The Traits of a Good Beta Reader
Right. Let’s go over the key points of what I look for in a beta reader.
They must be someone who loves reading. It doesn’t matter if they prefer genres other than the one I write—which is gaslamp fantasy—or if they don’t fall into my target demographic. As long as they’re willing to give my story a try, they’re perfect.
They must be willing to give honest feedback, even if they worry that it might hurt my feelings. I can only fix the issues with the story if they’re pointed out to me, so this is a crucial part of the beta-author relationship. Also, there is a difference between critique and criticism, and most authors learn how to implement the one and ignore the other. As long as the beta isn’t actively trying to hurt the author, it’ll be fine.
This honesty must extend to their reading time. If they realise they won’t be able to finish reading by the deadline, are struggling with personal stuff which has slowed their reading, or if they dislike the story so much that they don’t want to continue, they must be willing to tell the author so they can be replaced or the deadline can be extended.
They must be trustworthy, and not share the manuscript with everyone and their cat. If this person feels someone they know might also want to beta read, most authors would be totally down with it, as long as they’re asked.
If they’re reading a sequel, it’s pretty important that they’ve also read the rest of the series, even if they’re new to the beta team. Knowing the story so far, the characters, and the world can only help a beta pick up on continuity errors or any sudden weird behaviour from the cast.
I’ve written a post specifically about beta readers here, if you’d like to check that out.
Where to Find Beta Readers
I’ve met beta readers in Facebook groups, book clubs, and others have been recommended to me by fellow authors. There are websites that offer services that connect authors with potential beta readers, like StoryOrigin, but I’ve never tried such a service. For the most part, it’s easy enough to find beta readers on Facebook or Goodreads.
I’ve been incredibly lucky that most of my current beta readers are actually readers of my books who have become friends along the way. I think this tribe-finding aspect of the whole reading slash writing thing is what makes being an author so special. It connects us to the world in ways we hadn’t considered.
But I’ll share more about my beta readers in the next section.
My alpha team reads the story as I write it, chapter by chapter, and they offer feedback as I go. The beta team, on the other hand, only reads the finished manuscript once, after it has been self-edited. There have been some exceptions to this rule, but we’ll return to those a little later!
I implement whatever changes the alphas and betas have suggested, then send the doc to my incredible editor, Nerine Dorman. Once I receive her suggested edits, I refine and implement more changes, and the alpha team gives the doc a read-through before it returns to the editor. She offers her second round of feedback, I revise again, and then it’s off to the proofreader. Another round of typo-searching leads to the final revision (though, by this time, the changes are usually minute) and the book finally goes to formatting and is published.
And people say writing a book is easy.
Personally, I have the betas read before the first edit because I want the manuscript as polished as possible when it reaches my editor. Editors typically charge by the word or per page, and if there are gaping plot holes or chapters that don’t make sense, I might end up paying more than I would’ve if I’d identified and fixed those problems first.
Also, the first edit is all about developmental and structural stuff, while the second is usually more about what is happening on a sentence level—meaning this is where my editor focuses on fixing spelling and grammar. She does send spelling and grammar fixes in the first round of edits, but the second round is reserved for refining and if we have to fix structural issues again here, the entire process is stretched out and publishing will be delayed.
- My Alpha Team
My alpha team knows everything about the story. This includes all the spoilers, major upcoming plot points, and all the nitty-gritty in between. They read the story as I write, each chapter as it is completed, then backtrack every so often to reread the story with whatever changes I’ve implemented.
Yeah, it’s a crapload of work.
Because they know the story so intimately, they look out for continuity errors, make sure the foreshadowing is happening as it should, and also stop me from giving away too much too soon. Basically, they check for big-picture issues and are mainly concerned about those story arcs that span the entire series. This, of course, means they sometimes miss the smaller problems that the betas tend to catch.
These ladies are my brainstorming partners, my greatest cheerleaders, and also the strongest opposition when I start doing bad things to my characters. I swear, I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.
Alpha 1 and 2 are family members (I have so many cousins) who have been alpha reading for me since the day I first picked up a pen, while the new addition to the team, Alpha 3, is a friend so close she might as well have been family.
Alpha 1 is a writer in her own right and also serves as a sensitivity reader, Alpha 2 reads more books than I thought humanly possible, and Alpha 3 has an invaluable well of medical and world knowledge. 1 and 2 fall squarely within my target market age group and prefer to read speculative fiction, while 3 is slightly older and typically chooses women’s literature or romance.
While I’m writing, the cousins read every draft almost as many times as I do, while 3 will only read the story when it’s in paperback form in her hands, but she’s in on the brainstorming. She has the evilest ideas of the lot, so if your beloved characters are suffering, you know Alpha 3 is responsible.
I should also mention that they usually offer completely opposite views. Alpha 2 tends to come at problems from the perspective of instant solutions (the ones that will appease the shippers and the fangirls), while Alpha 1 has to think things over for a day or two and finds longer-term solutions that will greatly help build the nuances of the overall plot. Alpha 3 is a dark horse, who will come at a problem in a completely unique way. Her ideas are typically the most out there, but often give way to some pretty fun-to-write arcs.
- My Beta Team
My beta team, on the other hand, knows about as much as Jon Snow.
I tend to send them in without a blurb or any clues regarding the plot, and I don’t discuss any story arcs with them until they’ve finished reading the entire work in progress.
Why? Because I don’t want to influence their thought processes in any way. This means fresh perspectives and clear minds. They pick up more little gremlins this way, and also often challenge those things the alphas and I took for granted.
And this is something that happens more frequently than you’d think. I’m neurodivergent and my memory is really bad, and I’m willing to bet my alphas are yet-to-be-diagnosed neurodivergents with equally poor memory. So even when I thoroughly plan a book and discuss every intricate detail with the alphas, I’m bound to forget important plot points, descriptions, or other story elements. And because they’ve read the thing almost as often as I have, they tend to forget the same things as I do.
But the beta team doesn’t know about all of the things we’ve forgotten. Above all, fresh perspective has been the most useful weapon in my beta team’s arsenal.
I always try to work with an uneven number of betas, in case of a tie of opinions. Stephen King once said something about waiting to change a scene until at least two people agree that there is an issue, and I live by those words.
I usually give the betas a deadline. While you’ll still come across the odd straggler, more betas will actually submit feedback with a deadline than without. Also, it simplifies my planning process and ultimately means I can stick to the publishing timeframe.
I try to work with a diverse bunch who represents different age groups. Some authors only stick to beta readers from their target audience, and that’s totally fine. But personally, I’ve gained a lot of incredibly useful feedback from folks in different age groups to the one I want to target.
And I mean, what does a target audience even look like these days? We all know teenagers who read books that are marketed to adults, and adults who read books that are marketed to teenagers, for example. As long as people read, the lines defining target audiences will blur.
Also, different levels of life experience means different kinds of feedback. Since I’m writing a fairly diversely aged cast, it’s always helpful to know how folks of different ages experience the world. Their feedback has helped me to better understand and portray generational traits. And, I mean, they’ve also helped me vastly improve the story.
Over the years, my beta team has shuffled a lot. They read according to availability, and when life happens, they might not be able to participate. I’ve been extremely lucky to find dependable beta readers through a Facebook group where I’m a member, The Dragon Writers, and the author’s co-operative, Skolion.
Authors on the beta team tend to be stricter than non-authors and often nit-pick when it comes to grammatical and stylistic rules, which is something I really appreciate.
Things need to be pulled apart sometimes so we can see how they work, right? And my fellow authors are trained to do just that. They know the terminology, pick up those hated word repetitions and writerly quirks, and can often see to the heart of a problem really fast.
But that doesn’t at all diminish the worth of the non-authors in the group! If anything, they are still the most important people in the writing process, because they represent readers. Sure, they don’t always know the terminology. Like, many of them have no idea what exposition entails, but they know the story drags in the section where the info dump is located.
And in my experience, they tend to have feelings. They intuitively know something is wrong, even if they can’t explain exactly what. And once we chat about their feeling, they find a way to make the problem clear. And there, friends, is where the magic comes in.
I cannot even begin to number the times a random throwaway comment from a beta, something based on a feeling, has saved the entire damn plot.
It’s usually something small, like, “Susie’s backstory would make me sympathise more with her if we learned about it before this scene,” and I’ll finally understand what was missing from the book all along. This phenomenon has taken place in literally every book I’ve ever written. It’s incredible.
But okay, I’ll give you an example. In the very first drafts of A Study of Ash & Smoke, I wrote about the plague breaking out and running rampant in the slums. Everything still happened a lot as it does in the published book, except the reader only saw the slummers’ plight from the viewpoint of the physicians. One of my beta readers said she didn’t really feel sorry for the slummers, because they were just these figures kind of floating in the back of the story. And so I wrote Lance, the slummer who shows us the whole plague and everything that happens after, and suddenly readers connected with the slummers.
What I find so hilarious is that these beta feelings often supplement what the alphas and I have brainstormed, even if the views seem totally opposing at first.
For example, in A Curse of Venom & Scales, we have a new villain. Two of the betas kept questioning one of this villain’s personality traits. The alphas strongly opposed this view. Seriously. Alphas 1 and 2 never agree on anything, but they were the gates of Helm’s Deep in their defence of this villain.
After loads of back-and-forth worrying about it, I realised it was because they were all right. They’d sensed the same problem but came at it from different perspectives, and helped me to find the ultimate solution.
My Golden Rule
I mentioned earlier that I typically have my beta team read the manuscript once it has been completed. This is a self-inflicted rule that exists because I had a horrible experience with the trilogy I wrote before Fall of the Mantle. I was a complete noob who just wanted everyone to be happy, so as the betas read my half-complete story, I changed everything according to their wishes. In the end, my voice was completely lost, and I hated more than half of my characters. It wasn’t good.
So, if I can offer my fellow authors who also happen to be people-pleasers just one bit of unsolicited advice here, don’t allow anyone to squash your voice just because you want to keep them happy. Easier said than done, I know, but at least we can try together.
Since then, I’ve stuck by the no-beta-reading-before-it’s-done rule religiously. But A Curse of Venom & Scales is a beast of a different kind.
After months of struggling with it, I was just so despondent about the project—which I know now isn’t the book’s fault. But still, my alphas suggested that break my rule because they reckoned that the positive feedback would be what I needed to finish the damn thing. Meanwhile, the betas were HUNGRY for Venom & Scales, complete or not. So, I gave them the 50 or so chapters I had written.
And the alphas were right. The hilarious comments and gifs, and the worry that the betas would reach an unsatisfying incomplete end, gave me the drive I’d needed to complete the story.
But I use ‘complete’ as a loose term here. The book is technically done, but it has been demoted from a file named ‘FINAL!!!’ to draft status. I don’t want to hate this book or this series, so I’m taking a break from it to focus on my health. Once I do come back to it, though, there will be fairly substantial rewrites (AKA all of it will be scrapped and I’ll try again). I can’t promise you this book will come out this year, or even next year. That said, I finally know what this story has been lacking, so that’s something at least.
Also, my rule is back in place. I don’t plan on releasing half-done manuscripts ever again if I can help it. I mean, besides the alphas, of course. Their ongoing feedback and encouragement give me the fuel I need to keep going.
But there’s something too vulnerable about sharing incomplete work, and the fear of losing my voice again keeps niggling in the back of my head. So I reckon I’ll avoid that as far as I can.
And that’s all I have for you today! Check in again next week, when we’ll talk about sensitivity readers!