There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the wonderful folks all of us use to make our tales the best work possible. Who should we let read or work, and at what point should we let them read it? Just as important, who should not read our work? Let’s take them in the order that they should appear in our process.
Alpha Readers: Most writers are familiar with and use Beta Readers, so what is an Alpha Reader? An Alpha Reader, sometimes called a Critique Partner, is a highly trusted individual who takes a look at either an incomplete manuscript or a rough draft and provides you with objective views of your concept, first impressions of your characters and the direction your story is going. They might point out areas which need further development. They are not someone who can be relied on to pat you on the back and encourage you to keep at it. That is NOT their function. They are an excellent way to spot what works in your draft, what doesn’t work and to insure the foundations of your story are solid before you spend a great deal of time editing it.
So, you take their feedback, make whatever changes and revision you feel are appropriate and continue on until your story is finally complete.
Beta Readers: For most of us, the Beta Reader is the first person to lay eyes on our manuscript. They generally provide overall feedback on your story as well as pointing out plot holes (also called continuity errors), those gaps or misstatements which fly in the face of logic, such as “Jones stole a paint pony from the hitch rail and fogged it out of town”, then arrives at the hideout on a “sweating, wind-broke bay”. Another example of a plot hole might be where an object is laid aside and later appears either in hand or across the room as if by magic. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time--to all of us. Your Beta should also point out incorrect words (such as window seal instead of window sill, excepted instead of accepted, etc.), and factual errors. An example of a factual error would be having a character prior to 1873 “thumbing cartridges into his Colt”. There were plenty of Colt revolvers going as far back as the 1840s, but there were no cartridge models until 1872 and they weren’t readily available until late 1873.
Your Beta Reader should also point out inconsistencies in character. You may wish to have your character grow and face their fears over the course of your novel, but Frodo is never going to draw sword and charge a Hobgoblin. It’s not in his character.
Finally, your Beta Readers should be honest enough to tell you that this piece is terrible writing. Yes, it’s nice if they can find a gentle way to put it, “Charles, you never told me your children were writers”, or “This is really good. What grade is Tommy in now?” Maybe they will try a humorous tack, “Bro! How wasted were you, when you wrote this?” However they do it, tell you they must, and you must take it and thank them for it.
There are as many ways to work with Beta Readers as there are Betas. Some will give a short, written critique of the work, others will leave track changes on your manuscript. Some are excellent at finding those pesky plot holes, others at picking out the misspellings and odd word choices, some are the proverbial grammar Nazis, a select few are superior at catching the little factual details that otherwise would get you a stack of hate mail about why Poinciana is only found in the very southern tip of Texas and nowhere else in the United States including your New Mexico locale. Personally, I love my Beta Readers. They make my work infinitely richer and so much more believable and entertaining.
So, you make the necessary changes and revisions. If there were plot holes and inconsistencies which required a major rewrite, you will want a second round of Beta Readings, but at last your story is the best that you and your team can make it. You send it off to your editor. We’ll cover them next time. Until then, thanks for stopping by.