An Alpha or Beta Reader is one who comes on-board the novel writing process to be a test reader, and usually, helps make the book better by seeing what you didn’t or couldn’t see yourself. Alphas read very early drafts, while Betas read the close-to-but-not-quite-finished work, so most writers go after Beta Readers: after all, they’re the ones reading a nearly finished work, one that’s mentally on its way to an agent or publisher. So here are four quick traits to look for in good Beta Readers, A through D.
Articulation. A Beta Reader can’t help you if they can’t articulate what they liked and didn’t like about your book. In my experience, it’s best to have a range of Beta Readers; unless your work is so specific that it will only appeal to a small demographic, you need to get a feel for how various people will react to it. For my sci-fi fantasy series, I tried to recruit people from different ages, backgrounds, and reading tastes. Some had read all the major fantasy and sci-fi works in existence; others only read them on occasion, if at all. Some preferred the works of Jane Austen; others were adamant Tolkien fans. What united them was that they were all readers, and they liked discussing books, so when I asked for feedback, they gave it to me in spades: which characters were their favorites, what lines made them laugh, which aspects they disliked, etc.
Better. Ideally, you want Beta Readers who are better than you are—better at writing, better at reading, and better at judging what other readers will like. You don’t want to recruit a bunch of literary snobs, but at the same time, they need to have discernment, or their feedback will be worthless.
As I wrote out my sci-fi fantasy series, my Beta Readers helped me identify snags in plot or character, and they’d give me feedback about how to change it—suggesting which couples should end up together and which didn’t work, which villains should be eliminated entirely, and which characters deserved to live rather than die. I didn’t always follow their advice, but what they had to say made me rethink why I’d written what I did, and whether it was just me, or the characters that had determined the action in question. Their input made the books better, so that when I publish them, they will be the best they can be.
Courtesy. The best Beta Readers are polite. They may say things that are hard to hear, confirming your worst fears about yourself and your work, but they will do it nicely. (If they don’t, remember…you asked for this, but don’t ask them again.) You want readers who genuinely enjoy your work, if possible, but are willing to point out its flaws without compunction. Their silence could be the difference between success and failure for the story…and possibly your career.
Delight. Every writer wants readers who actually enjoy what the writer wrote. Beta Readers who like what you’ve written will have a vested interest in improving it, in making the characters shine and the plot pleasing. They’ll enjoy taking the time to read and reread your book, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses, and you won’t have to twist their arm to get them to talk about it. And, best of all, they’ll give you the encouragement you need after staring at the same screen, the same pages, the same story for days, months, or years at a time.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren