Fantastic editor and writer Alyse Bailey imparts her wisdom on why writers aspiring for publication need editors, alpha readers, and beta readers!
At a certain stage in the writing process, you’re going to stall. It’s inevitable. You’ll always reach a point at which you think you have nothing left to write or improve. Does this mean the book is perfect? Maybe. But that’s not for you to decide.
Regardless of experience level, every single writer needs feedback. Feedback can come from anyone with the ability to put their eyes to a page, but the most effective feedback comes from alpha readers, beta readers, and editors. These three are crucial to the publication process, that is, if you want your book to be a success.
What exactly are alpha & beta readers?
Alpha and beta readers are the guinea pigs for you to “test” your story on. They’ll read your unpublished manuscript and point out the strengths and weaknesses from their perspective as a casual reader.
The alpha reader is the very first person to read your manuscript. This can be your partner, your best friend, or a mentor–anybody that you trust to read your first draft. Yep, I said it: your first draft. The purpose of the alpha reader is to help you determine if your book is worth it in the first place.
Pros of the Alpha Reader:
- will let you know flat out if your story is a hit or a miss
- can serve as the kick-in-the-ass to do something with an old, abandoned story
- encouragement to keep going
Cons of the Alpha Reader:
- not entirely unbiased (alphas and betas will sugarcoat)
- can crush dreams if they’re overly critical
Everybody needs an alpha reader. While it can be tough to overcome the phobia of handing over the first draft to a fresh pair of eyes, it is essential to ensure that you’re not going to waste months (or years!) on a story that just isn’t worth writing.
On the other hand, if your story is worth it,your alpha reader will offer the much-needed encouragement and support to keep moving onwards and upwards.
Beta readers come in when you’re ready to work out the kinks in the story’s development. A bit like a developmental editor, betas will focus on the guts of the story itself rather than technical issues like grammar and sentence structure.
Betas can be found online for a fee, but the easiest and cheapest way to gather a few is to ask around your friend group (this is especially useful if your friends are writers or bookworms). It’s best to have between 3-8 beta readers to test your manuscript on, but if you’re looking for as much feedback as you can get, the more the merrier.
Pros of the Beta Reader:
- mimics future readers so you learn what to expect after publication
- general feedback on the main pros and cons
- offers a new perspective
Cons of the Beta Reader:
- often biased
- not 100% reliable when it comes to doing the actual work
- you can’t ask too much of unpaid volunteers
- not a professional (can’t offer truly credible feedback)
The only reason you should not use beta readers is if you’re planning on hiring the world’s most extensive editor. Otherwise…use. the. betas. They’re free, they’re not difficult to find, and there isn’t a logical downside. You’re not going to lose any money if the work falls through, and even if a beta doesn’t bring up any new points of focus, the act of sending your manuscript is a feat in itself.
At the very least, betas serve as a test run to prepare you for the terrifyingly exciting future of sending out your book into a world of readers.
Ways in Which Alphas & Betas Can Help
Taking advantage of alpha and beta readers is hands down the best way to test out your novel before hitting send on that first query letter or signing up as an Amazon self-publisher. Much like an editor, both will identify the clear strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript and help you chart a course for effective revisions.
But how will they manage to catch things that even I didn’t see?
Betas, alphas, and editors (as well as anyone who ever gives another pair of eyes to your writing) will always offer a new & different perspective on the story you’ve likely exhausted yourself with. There are a few reasons for this:
- Nobody is going to see your book exactly how you see it. You, as the author, have the advantage of mentally designing the entire world around your story. Since your reader cannot see inside your head, it’s your job to express that world as best you can on paper, but it’s easy to fall short.
For instance, a character you might see as a badass might come off as completely unrealistic and therefore unlikeable. Maybe your story is set in a city but the reader thinks of it as a small town. You’ll never know what scenes have been distorted by your own imagination until you pass it off to someone who is approaching the story as a blank slate.
Using guinea pig readers is a bit like playing the telephone game. You tell the story how you know it and they repeat it back to you how they heard it. If you like the way they heard it, then you know you’ve done your job as the storyteller. If not, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate certain elements of the story.
- You don’t know what you don’t know. There is always some technique you don’t know about that can improve your writing, and you’ll never know it exists until you share it with someone who does.
- No matter how experienced a writer you are, you are not perfect. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, how many plans you’ve made, and how many reference books you’ve read. You cannot singlehandedly cover it all. Every reader notices and focuses on different things, and your betas might point out flaws and highlights that you would have never considered otherwise.
What About Editors?
Editors are paid. This is the number one reason why many writers choose to go without one. But, editors offer a kind of unmatched, professional feedback that you can’t get from an alpha or beta reader. And you don’t always need to put down $3000 for editorial feedback. There are plenty of budget-friendly options if you know where to look and who to ask.
While the order varies depending on what type of editor you choose, traditionally the alpha reader comes first, the betas second, and the editor third. Your editor is there to do the final checks and ensure that your story and revisions are enough for publication.
Editors are specialized, experienced, and dedicated. Alpha and beta readers can be unpredictable; you can never be sure exactly what you’re going to get out of their feedback. With an editor, you can not only trust that their feedback is educated and legit, but you can rely on them and hold them accountable for what they promised to do. Editors aren’t just doing a favor; it’s their job to stand by you and help improve your manuscript.
Pros of the Editor:
- professional (can verify they know what they’re talking about)
- reliable and accountable
- spends much more time on your manuscript than alphas & betas
- will make your manuscript a top priority
Cons of the Editor:
- often has limited availability
- you go by their rules
If you’re planning on traditional publishing or seriously self-publishing, you need an editor. With a handful of dedicated beta readers and a few rounds of intense revision, you’ll be able to do without an expensive, line-by-line developmental-overhaul job. But, a simple manuscript critique or a professional proofread is always a good idea to ensure that your book is road safe and ready to go.
Outside feedback is essential for writers, especially those with the end goal of publication. While it can be hard to trust someone with your unpublished manuscript, the results of sharing your writing with alpha readers, beta readers, and editors will reform your revision process and point your story in the direction of the finish line.
Hey there! I’m Alyse Bailey, a novelist, digital nomad, and developmental editor. I’ve been writing fiction since I was old enough to spell and I vow to keep writing until the day I die. If I’m not at my desk with a manuscript or on Zoom with a client, you can find me wandering around some Eastern Bloc city with my camera and a collection of Soviet short stories. Follow my traveling and novel-writing process on Instagram @alysebaileywriter or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about my editing services.