Monday, October 5, 2015

Guest Post: The Secret Power of Alpha and Beta Readers, by Callie Stoker

This month, our Monday Writing Series focuses on Editing and Polishing. Here to share an important tool in this process is Callie Stoker, a professional editor. Enjoy!

You've written your manuscript and your baby is ready for the world. This next great American novel is sure to have agents and publishers fighting over it... right?
No doubt you have an awesome story on your hands. But before sending out your queries, use one of the best assets you probably already have. Alpha and Beta Readers.

These readers are your fellow writing buddies and test audience. Their feedback will let you know the highs and lows of your story and help you weed out the problems you aren't able to see for yourself.

Alpha Readers
Alpha readers are writers. These are your writing buddies, your writing group, or fellow friends who also write.

They know the craft of writing and can give comments 
based on storytelling craft.
They focus on areas of:

·      story structure
·      character development
·      plot holes
·      satisfying conclusion
·      promises made or broken within your writing

Professional Alpha readers are called Developmental Editors/Content editors/Book doctors. But, you don't have to pay a professional to get a good alpha read. A writing or critique group with authors who know the craft make wonderful alpha readers.

To get the best feedback, be
specific with your alpha readers on the points of your novel that you feel are weak. If you are worried that the twists and turns of your thriller plot aren't working, whether your characters are likable, or if your ending is satisfying, tell them. The more specific you are in your requests, the better feedback you will receive.    

 Request that their feedback point to storytelling elements that are or are not working. For instance: "Your dialogue isn't doing enough for the scene. Remember that dialogue not only allows your character's to communicate, but should also move the plot forward or reveal character development." is a reminder of craft. A less than helpful Alpha Reader will try and fix your writing: "The dialogue on page forty was too slow for me. If you have them talk about their relationship more and maybe throw in some action the scene would be a whole lot better." Oops! An alpha reader like this is giving prescriptive advice that can confuse your own writing.

It may take time to gather and train the right alpha readers for you. Many writers get alpha reads automatically as they work with their writing group. If you don't have your own group, take the time to meet other authors through writing conferences and writing associations. Connections with fellow writers can be a great benefit to your writing and growth as an author.

Beta Readers
Beta readers are your core demographic and your test audience. If you are writing a Middle Grade science fiction novel, you are going to look for a 9-12 year old reader who is interested in science fiction.

Not all of your beta readers need to be in your demographic--you can receive valuable input from many types of readers--but be sure to have at least one or two beta readers from your core audience. These readers will tell you where your story hit the mark, and where you may have missed it.

Because beta readers aren't writers, we recommend you give your readers specific guidelines for the kind of feedback you are looking for. We borrowed the following list from Hugo Award Winner, Mary Robinette Kowal, who regularly uses readers as she creates her books.

Ask your readers to mark the following places as they read:

  • What bored you?
  • What confused you?
  • What didn't you believe?
  • What was cool? (So you don’t accidentally “fix” it.)

Knowing what parts of your story elicit the emotions you were hoping for is a great payoff for a writer. Finding out which scenes didn't quite work allows you to improve those story moments before you send your book out to the professionals you hope will invest in your work.

Note: For some authors the terms Alpha and Beta are synonymous or interchangeable. The important thing is to find out what form of outside reader best suits you. We highly recommend putting your novel through both sets of reads so that it can be as polished and ready for publication as possible.


Callie Stoker is a freelance manuscript editor. She has ten years of experience in editing. Her business, The Manuscript Doctor, offers services that help stories at any stage. Callie has two children on the Autism Spectrum and is a champion for spreading awareness and acceptance for those with disabilities. She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, the Horror Writers Association, and The United Authors Association.


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