Alphas & Betas

Author Mary Robinette Kowal in a recent blog post linked to the blog of one of her readers.  The topic of interest?  Alpha readers

Many of you are already familiar with the term “Beta reader”.  The Alpha reader is the flip side to that coin, as Laura Christensen explains in her post, which is worth a read.  Beta readers, as you know, help authors refine their work by identifying where things aren’t working, clumsy language, and various other problems in a manuscript.  Alpha readers also help authors, but their focus is more specifically on the story, plot, and characterization.  Alpha readers are the first readers: they provide the first feedback to an author on whether a story is working.

Whenever possible, I try to use a combined Alpha/Beta approach to getting feedback on my writing.  I like a first response to help me figure out problems with my story, the story’s structure, and the characters.  And then I like to get a second sounding to help me further refine once I’ve got the structure to my liking.  I’ve read of some authors who take that even further and hand off later drafts to Gamma readers.  That’s pretty thorough, and I’m sure their manuscripts are all the better for the extra attention.  And all of this, of course, is before the story sees the eyes of an editor.

Reading the post left me feeling more than a little guilty.  Apparently there are folks out there, like Laura Christensen, who volunteer for Alpha and Beta reading gigs simply because they like reading, or like a particular author.  But make no mistake: the role of an Alpha or Beta reader is work.  And more often than not, when an author is looking for Alphas and Betas, they’re looking for free labor.

Many writers compensate turning to the writing community itself and offering a little tit-for-tat, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours.  You Alpha/Beta read my manuscript, I’ll Alpha/Beta read yours.  This is the very foundational ethos of such critique-centric communities as  That critique site and others have been very successful in helping writers, but it can work just as well to reach out through the blogs of fellow writers.

I’ve done this.  I’ve gotten some great feedback from readers both Alpha and Beta, and that’s helped me tremendously as an author.  Fellow writer-bloggers like Jo Eberhardt, T.S. Bazelli, Anthony Collins and others have provided some great feedback.  In fact, the best feedback I get is from fellow writers, and it’s because of the help and efforts of folks like these that I was so confident that “Story of G” was so much better than my prior novelette “PFTETD”.

But in return, I  have been a terrible Alpha/Beta reader.  Not that my feedback was bad – y0u’d have to ask those I’ve read for an answer to that – but because of the timeliness, or lack thereof, of my feedback.  I’m a sloooooooooooooooooooooow Alpha/Beta reader.  Mostly this is because of the various time-constraints I live under.  Free time?  I just don’t have that much.  And when Ido  have free time?  Well, you may have noticed, if you follow this blog, that I’m not the world’s most prolific writer.  So when I get free time, I like to spend it writing, whenever possible.  And so it is that I find myself rarely able to complete a manuscript as part of an Alpha/Beta read during the time-frame that any other rational observer might call reasonable.

It’s going to be a while before I’ll have need of the services of an Alpha or Beta reader.  A first draft of “Book of M” is at least a year away, best-case scenario, and I haven’t even started on any short stories or novelettes.  But when that time comes, I’m hesitant to ask for help again.  I’ve done a terrible job of returning the favor on those who’ve helped me with Alpha and Beta reading so far, given that the majority of my willing readers have been fellow writers.  And don’t feel I can really ask their help again, when I’ve not fulfilled my end of the bargain.  And for the foreseeable future, at least, I’m confident this will continue to be the case.  I’m not going to have sufficient free time to read for others any time soon.  If I can’t do it for others, I’ve no right to ask others to do for me.

On the flip-side… I’m no Mary Robinette Kowal, either.  I’m not a published author.  I haven’t won any awards.  I don’t have fans.  When it comes to my writing, I’m of an unproven quality.  As such, there aren’t too many who are lining up to read my unpolished manuscripts and provide feedback for free.  And I don’t expect there to be, lacking as I am in bona fides

I can’t pay back Alpha and Beta reads with in-kind services.  I can’t pay with money.  And I can’t count on legions of fans to turn up a healthy handful who are willing to risk my bad rough draft prose to help me produce better fiction simply because they like me.  So, where does that leave me, and my writing?

The quality of my writing, unfortunately, will almost certainly suffer for the want of good feedback.  But that’s just how it is, I suppose.  Nothing of value comes free.  But when it comes to the cost of good feedback from Alpha and Beta readers, it’s a cost that I just can’t afford.  Without it, my writing will likely stagnate, even if my productivity does not.


Someday.  Always someday.

Someday maybe I’ll have more time to write, to be more productive.  Someday, maybe I’ll have more time to pay back those worthies who alpha or beta read my work with reads of their work in kind.  Someday, maybe my writing will actually be of good, publishable quality.  Someday, maybe I can try to make a career as a writer work.

But not today.


13 thoughts on “Alphas & Betas

  1. Some day! You still have that novel to write, and by the time you’re done, circumstances might be different.

    Also of note: some readers are better suited for alpha reading vs. beta reading. It’s tricky to determine which until you’ve had some experience with them.

    • You’re right, circumstances might be different. In fact, they almost certainly will be. But, and I’m not saying this to be negative, but I don’t think they’ll be conducive to me having more time for writing, reading, etc. by then. There are likely to be other things that arise to make my time even more scarce in the next few years before my time theoretically becomes more abundant in later years.

    • As for the fact that some readers are better suited to alpha or beta roles… I have so few readers in general that I’m not terribly picky about which roles they fill. Just having someone to give any feedback is useful.

  2. Alas for time restraints. Goodness knows I’d like to help out with my fellow writers’ needs more, too, but I’m learning my limits, and don’t want to promise more than I feel I can realistically (and graciously) deliver. Better to be honest about what you have the ability and willingness to give than let good intentions turn you untrustworthy.
    But circumstances change. Here’s lookin’ at you, Someday!

    • That’s the position I find myself in: I’ve done such a terrible job as a beta reader, that I realize it’s best to come clean and forebear from participating until I’m more confident I can better contribute in the future. That said, the beta reading I’ve done has been a useful learning exercise for me, so I encourage you, if you get the chance and can find the time, to give it a shot.

  3. I had not seen alphas vs. betas described this way…but that makes sense.

    Learned something new today!

    Anyway, here’s to working towards “someday”… *raises glass*

  4. Stephen, at least you live in a country where anyone could alpha/beta-read for you! 😉 Don’t you have any friends who like to read? That’s what’s required from alphas, right?
    I can’t tell you how hard it is to find someone able to read in English in Italy (although there are plenty of English speakers in Roma)… sigh!
    Anyway, whenever you’re ready, I can do one pass for you if you like on any of your babies. I still read like a reader, and am very plot and character-oriented… and no, I won’t ask you to read one of mine in return. I’m just curious! 🙂
    Happy writing!

    • Well, I appreciate the offer to read without a tit-for-tat. (Like I said, it makes me feel guilty, because it doesn’t really feel fair to the other author whose struggles are no more or less poignant to them than mine are to me. It feels like cheating.) And I definitely empathize with the difficulty finding good readers – alpha, beta, or otherwise. (Although, at least, when I find a reader the chances are usually pretty much 100% that they can read the language I’m writing in. So I have that blessing…) For myself… well… I’m a more introverted-than-extroverted individual who has few relevant social outlets (mostly church, and that’s significantly less social than it used to be, now that Dear Wife and I have a young child). The fact is, I don’t get out much, and when I do it’s usually for a date with my wife. So I don’t interact with a lot of people, outside this blog, who are likely to be willing volunteers.

      • I feel guilty because I’m prolific, so I might overwhelm whoever volunteers – even tit-for-tat, I might write 3 books while the other person write 1, so… I don’t ask to read to other busy writers! 🙂
        And I’m a hermit too, so finding a reader outside of the blogosphere is hard… anyway, we have a deal! 🙂

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