The Art of Being Alpha and Beta

When I write, I write to get the story down. I try not to focus on the wording, structure, and the technical details too much. Rather I try to focus on the rhythm, the flow, and finding out where my characters are going to take me. Once I have the story down…that’s when I focus on the technical details. When I’m happy enough with that, I send out the call to my Alphas.

Some authors just use Betas, but I have at least two rounds of preview reading before releasing: my Alpha readers and my Beta readers. Each has a unique job.

The Alpha readers provide the preliminary feedback, obviously, but they also do something else for me. They let me know if it’s worth the time to have the next group of readers go at it.

My Alphas have the largest amount of work of the two groups. I see them as the coarse filter of my words. The Betas are the fine filter. In my opinion, my Alphas do the most work, and so for them the reading is potentially the slowest. I know this because I have at least one reader where every little thing makes her pause, note it, and then continue reading. As much as she loves to read, she just can’t read a book with errors without noticing and sometimes getting irritated by them. Such an Alpha or Beta is a jewel when you find one.

The Alphas are finding all the pebbles and sand that get into the reader’s shoes as they walk the path of my stories. While I hope, I also know they don’t find everything. I know no one reader or group of readers ever reads the same story exactly the same way. I expect that and use that to my advantage.

Where all the Alphas bring up the same point, I know that has to change. Where many bring up the same issue, I know that needs to be looked at critically. Where only one brings up an issue, I know that must be looked at seriously, but with absolute freedom to leave it if I think it better my way.

Regardless, every item raised by my Alphas is looked at in the cold, hard light of unbiased scrutiny. Sometimes I’ll go back to that person and talk to them to get more information, to find out where they’re coming from. Sometimes even when it’s just one Alpha that mentioned it, out of that comes a change that drastically improves the story.

It’s bad enough as it is with my desire to have my writing perfect when I send it out to my Alpha readers, so what’s that mean when I try to get it ready for my Betas?

Interestingly enough, I put enough work into getting it ready for the Alphas that I really get to pretty much just focus on Alpha feedback as input for what I want my Betas to check. Naturally, that leads to some tweaking and wordsmithing, all while attempting to keep my story intact, flowing, and ensuring my readers stay interested.

It’s also around this time, between Alpha and Beta readers, when I find myself easing into the next short story or work. It just happens. I just start thinking about it, making notes, and doing a little light writing. I do try, really, not to start on any new work fully before getting my feedback from my Betas. I’m afraid that if I do, I won’t give my Betas the full attention they deserve.

With the work from my Alphas and renewed perspective from being away from the story for a bit, if I’ve done my job properly my Betas will have a faster, smoother read. There won’t be as much, if any, sand and pebbles in their way down the path I set before them. I believe that while my Alphas are kind of forced of necessity into scrutinizing the work, the Betas are able to focus on the overall story and reading flow much more than the Alphas will.

By now, the story should be almost ready for prime time. So, the Betas should be able to “just read” the story. I know they will find things the Alphas missed but these will often be subtler errors more than any remaining typos and word or structure problems.

I weigh their input the same way: by how many find the same thing. Everything the Alphas and Betas find I try to talk myself into accepting as a needed change. That does not mean that I will make that change, but doing it that way helps me to see what they’re seeing. And just as with the Alphas, I may have the Betas do a second read after I make changes.

Because of what I see as different amounts of work and reading pleasure, I rotate my Alphas and Betas so that each gets to perform both roles for me. I find, too, that as is to be expected, each has a unique perspective they bring to the reading and that each finds different things depending on whether they’re doing Alpha or Beta reading.

Yep, as a writer I have as much an obligation to my Alphas and Betas as I trust they do to me.

I want their feedback for many reasons: gratification, testing, growth, oversight, remaining humble, keeping my writing readable, getting the best possible product, and catching what I miss for seeing all the trees in the forest.

To justify their time and effort, I need to ensure I give them my full attention when they ask questions and provide feedback. Anything less is a disservice to both of us.

A Beta reader once asked me, “How many Beta readers do you have?” That’s a valid question, but it’s also a loaded question. My answer was simply, “Hopefully, enough.” I’ve also been asked how many people another author sent their manuscript out to. My answer to that is always that I don’t know and I don’t want to know. As I see it, anyone asking that question may be falling behind and hoping to slide by. Maybe not, but there’s a risk there that if a Beta or Alpha reader knows there are 10, 15, 20 others then they don’t really need to get it in if they think they can’t. The problem here for us authors is that maybe we do have a ton of people proofing our work, but that particular person may have the one unique insight we need to really make the writing work. Or maybe there’s just 5 of them and we need all the feedback we can get.

There was a time when I would write, re-write, re-write, until I got fed up with it or just decided it was good enough. Then I’d set it aside and go write something else. Now I’ve got the courage to share my work, to feel I deserve the thrill of knowing someone out there is reading and enjoying my writing. With that comes responsibility. To support that responsibility, I rely heavily on my Alpha and Beta readers to make me look good.

I think they’re doing a great job of that.

If the writing flops it is totally my fault, never the fault of my Alphas and Betas.

To my Alphas and Betas who read this, THANK YOU!!!

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