Writers often use developmental readers to help develop and refine their stories before publication.

Developmental readers do not replace editors.

They also aren’t meant to do the work for you, only give feedback on their experience of the story.

Most common are alpha and beta readers, though some authors use more rounds (gamma, omega etc.).

I’m going to focus on alpha and beta readers today.

What is an alpha reader?

Alpha readers typically read the first draft of a manuscript and give brutally honest feedback on narrative structure and logical fallacies.

Alphas are very often also writers themselves (though not necessarily) and are there to help you find plot holes and places where the story doesn’t fit together well.

While they can point out spelling and grammar issues, this isn’t what they should be looking at; the alpha reader is there to help you with the big picture.

Things alpha readers look out for:

  • What’s working?
  • What feels weak?
  • What seems to make sense to the writer but isn’t translating well on the page?
  • How can the text be stronger?
  • How can weak points be made better?

Alpha readers need to be built of sturdy stuff and have a good imagination because they read very raw text with a goal to see what it might one day become.

Everyone cannot do this well, so writers; vet your readers well when recruiting!

You don’t want people as alpha readers who will just tell you good things.

You want people who will look at the text critically and analyse whether it works or not, and then give you feedback that allows you to build a better narrative.

One of the reasons writers often serve as alpha readers for other writers (particularly in self-publishing) is because they have a good understanding of narrative structure and story theory.

After you’ve talked with your alpha readers, take some time to consider the feedback you received.

You should only have alpha readers who you trust and whose comments you can take seriously, so don’t just let anyone in.

Once you’ve let the feedback sit for a while (it’s never a good idea to immediately start editing when you receive feedback), you can go back to your text and start analysing it with the added information of the feedback.

What is a beta reader?

Once a manuscript has gone through developmental editing (during and/or after alpha readers) you can invite the beta readers in.

The major difference between alpha and beta readers is that a beta reader is a casual reader.

Beta readers will look at your work as an average reader, not to analyse the crafting.

From your beta readers, you’ll want to hear what they did and didn’t like.

Again, be wary of people who only tell you nice things!

One of the major factors in writing professionally is that you’re writing for other people to enjoy the story too.

If you want your work to be commercially successful – meaning that it’s appealing to an entire target audience – you’ll need other people’s input to get different points of view on how your story lives up to the expectation of being a good ride for the average reader.

You want your beta readers to provide you with constructive information on what they like and don’t like, not just crap on your manuscript.

Things beta readers look for:

  • Does the language and narrative style suit the story?
  • What things in the story elicits an emotional response?
  • Was something confusing?
  • Did they feel bored at some point in the manuscript?
  • Things they did and didn’t like, plus a short explanantion of why or why not!

Beta readers can also flag spelling and grammar issues they find, but this isn’t required of them.

Your beta readers are the ones who will tell you how successful you’ve been at crafting your narrative.

If they give you the response you’d hoped for: laughed at the funny bits, cried at the sad ones and simmered with curiosity at your cliffhangers, then you know that you’ve done your work well.

How to be helpful as a reader when workshopping a manuscript or story.

When you want to be helpful as an early reader, it starts with being honest.

As you’re reading the text, observer yourself and log the thoughts and feelings that come up for you.

And when you feel something, make a note.

When writing out your note, strive to be as specific as you can.

“I don’t get it” doesn’t tell the writer much.

“I don’t understand why this character has to climb the wall. Why can’t he just take the stairs?” is more helpful because it tells the writer what’s missing.

If there’s something important about a character or the plot that you’re not getting as a reader, the writer needs to express their idea more clearly.

When you’re writing a manuscript that can easily span up to 100,000 words, you’re juggling a lot of things as the writer and you miss things.

That’s why alpha and beta readers are so incredibly valuable to us; we rely on you to help us with our blind spots.

When writing out your comments, focus on your experience as a reader.

Use words like “I think” and “I feel”.

“I’m bored”, “I feel like this character wouldn’t say this”, and “I don’t find this part particularly interesting” are all valid as reader feedback.

Ultimately, the writer is the one who will decide what to do (if anything) based on the feedback they receive.

It’s also the writer’s job to vet their readers and get the most appropriate ones to help.

If I’m writing a romance, I don’t want to have a reader who never reads romance because they think it’s sappy and stupid.

The process of having people read through your manuscript is also a process of better defining the target audience that you’ll eventually want to sell the book to.

The goal of having developmental readers is to create a stronger narrative and everyone who gets involved should be there because they’re ready to argue for a better story.

When you give comments, you should also be open to discussing your comments.

Because sometimes a writer just needs more information to be able to assess how to best put your feedback to good use.

One philosophy that I follow when giving feedback is this gem from Luvvie Ajayi Jones;

  1. Do I mean it?
  2. Can I defend it?
  3. Can I say it with love?

If your feedback always follows these rules, you’re golden.

Why become an alpha reader?

Alpha reading does take more focus and cognitive processing power than casual reading, so make sure that you have the time to commit to being an alpha reader before agreeing to do it.

When you really get into it, it’s fun! Reading other people’s stuff and helping them out with their stories is such a good way to practice and improve your own writing craft.

You always learn so much from working together with others.

When you see how other people solve problems and help them wrestle their plots into submission, you learn a lot about yourself as a writer and your own creative process.

Being a writer means you spend a lot of time alone (making up conversations for the voices in your head).

And developmental work is a great way to be social as a writer; it gets you out of your own head and your own story.

Not to mention, talking to other actual, live humans!

You also get to contribute to something bigger than yourself.

And who doesn’t like being useful when you’re needed?

Last, but not least, you’re supporting the kind of authors you like and helping the kind of stories you want to read be published.

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