Writing Excuses 13.38: How to Find and Use Alpha Readers
Key points: Alpha and beta readers? Alpha readers, you trust to read a rough draft, to be honest and give you helpful feedback. Beta readers read a more polished version and you get their feedback. Or, alpha readers are industry professionals, while beta readers are test audience. Alpha readers are agents and writing groups. “You’ll have your own definitions.” Alpha readers understand the form. Where do you get them? Writing conferences. Book clubs. Face-to-face or online critiques? For alpha readers, back-and-forth, face-to-face is better. Beta readers, online feedback is okay. Don’t forget targeted experts! Be aware that bad critiquing can ruin books! To get the right feedback? Make sure you and the other person can argue and articulate different opinions and understand what the other person is saying. Send it to the right people. Ask your readers to just give you their reaction, you will diagnose the problem. Look for people whose strengths complement your weaknesses. Use tiered questions, get their reaction, then drill down for specifics. Put pins in the good parts! Use targeted beta readers, who are as close to the character’s experience as possible.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to Find and Use Alpha Readers.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Valynne] I’m Valynne.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m… Um… I haven’t actually finished today’s chapter yet.
[Brandon] Valynne, you were going to define for us alpha, beta readers, that sort of thing.
[Valynne] I think sometimes people call them… Use that… Use alpha beta interchangeably. To me, on alpha reader is generally maybe one person whom you trust to read what you’re writing. It’s not polished, it’s just rough draft. You throw it at them, they tell you what they like. You trust them to be honest and trust that they will give you feedback that is helpful. Beta readers, I would say, I like… I consider a beta reader someone… It’s at the… Your manuscript is at the stage where you’ve gone through, you’ve done some edits, you’ve polished it a little bit more, and then you’re sending it to beta readers to get their feedback. These people can be other writers in a critique group, it can be family members, it can be friends. I think it’s good to have someone who is going to give you honest feedback and good feedback such as other writers in a critique group.
[Brandon] We’ll talk about how to get that out of them.
[Valynne] Then, also, have a cheerleader. Someone who just loves everything you write. I think writing can be hard, so it’s nice just to have someone who tells you what things they absolutely love about your writing.
[Brandon] So, today we’ll talk about kind of alpha and beta readers. Because you’ll have your own definitions, listeners. I have a starker line between them than Valynne. Alpha readers are industry professionals. Beta readers are test audience. For me. So, for me, if you are my agent, you’re an alpha reader. You are reading a book before it’s done to give me feedback. A beta reader is, you probably aren’t an industry professional, you’re a fan, you read the book to just give a reader response when it’s in a close to finished form.
[Dan] That’s kind of how I split them up as well. Because the two groups give very different kinds of feedback. There are people that I use as beta readers that I know if I send them my first draft, all the advice and all the feedback they give me is going to be weird, and often going to be wrong. Because they don’t know how to read a first draft. They will identify big problems that I know are big problems and they will start suggesting solutions. That’s not what I want. Instead, I send it to my writing group and to my agent.
[Brandon] So, let me ask you guys this. Where do you get your alpha and beta readers?
[Valynne] I think that one of the best ways to find critique groups, for example, is to go to writing conferences. Any… You’re already among people who write and a lot of times are people looking for critique groups. You can do critique groups online. You don’t necessarily have to live close to each other. So, I think that’s one of the nice places to find someone to…
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. Do you usually use… Do you do in face critiques and Internet critiques, or do you do only Internet critiques? How’s it for you?
[Valynne] When I first started writing, I used to do a critique group once a month. We would bring pages, we would sit… Everyone would come to the critique group with those pages read, and we would talk about… Give… Go person by person, give the feedback. These days, it’s really hard to find the time to do those kinds of critiques, so we are still critiquing each other’s work, but sometimes it’s more a full draft of something that’s about to go to print or something like that. So a lot of it is more online now.
[Brandon] Dan, where do you find them, and is it in person, online for you?
[Dan] My group right now is… My alpha readers are my agent, who I found by querying an agent. Then 2 other authors that I have just met at writing conventions over the years. Wendy Tolliver and Matt Kirby, who are both fantastic YA authors. We got together and formed a writing group. So that was just kind of networking interactions at conventions. A lot of… Like what Valynne’s talking about. That’s all in-person stuff. My beta readers, I’ve got a group of about 6 to 8 people that I will send every draft to once I think it’s ready for public consumption. That’s all online, and they will give me feedback online. I will also, for every book, have a group of kind of targeted experts that I feel like I need specific advice from. That changes book to book, but I think I can talk about that later.
[Brandon] We’ll talk about that after the break.
[Howard] For me, alpha is in person, and beta can be in person but functions fine online, asynchronously. Alpha… And that, for me, that’s the distinction. It’s got to be completely synchronous communication with alpha because there’s so much back and forth. When I’m critiquing Bob Defendi’s work, often what I am telling him is I think this is what you are trying to accomplish with this chapter. I get the sense that that is what this chapter is for. I feel like it didn’t do that job because of this section right here, it’s kind of confused me. Bob can then respond and say, “Oh. Well, wow, it’s really weird that you got that idea.”
[Howard] And off he goes. That kind of feedback we have to go back and forth, because when Bob brings it, he knows there are things in here that are broken and I need my alpha readers to identify them, and the alpha reader… Brandon, as you said, industry professional alpha reader needs to be somebody who understands the form well enough to be able to say, “I know what this chapter should be trying to do because of the form that I know that we’re working within.”
[Dan] Now, this, I think is dangerous. All of us use industry professionals for alpha readers because we are industry professionals at this point, and it is invaluable. Over the years, I have come to appreciate how important it is to have that back and forth conversation, when I can say, “Okay, this character doesn’t work at all and I think it’s for these reasons. What do you think?” And then the person, the author, will say, “Well, actually, this is what I intended.” Those are very important. But I remember when we, Brandon and I, had our writing group in college. We were trying to do that and we didn’t know what we were talking about, and we ended up ruining some books.
[Dan] Which I think is maybe just inevitable and part of the learning process, but it is something to watch out for.
[Brandon] It’s way more dangerous for discovery writers, I’ve found, than for outliners. My books didn’t get ruined, but I ruined books. Because I said, “Try this.” Then they did, and it was the wrong thing entirely. Let me say where I’ve got mine, and then I want to dig into this question. My alpha readers are still my writing group, the same group that I started with Dan in college, but then he moved away.
[Dan] Ha Ha! I became too big for you. [Chuckles]
[Brandon] We approached Eric James Stone, and they still meet in my house every week in person. In person’s really important for me. I have about 70 beta readers. We’ll use a group of between 20 and 50 for each book. We do an online Google spreadsheet that goes… That is chapter by chapter with questions for them to fill in. The beta read for Oathbringer ended up being 600,000 words of comments.
[Howard] Comments? Ha ha. Yep.
[Brandon] Fortunately I didn’t have to sort through them. I have people that sorted through and pulled out the important ones.
[Dan] I don’t have people, so my process is a lot simpler.
[Brandon] Let me ask, this one’s really important. That gets us into, and you guys are going to appreciate this. How do you get the right feedback from a critique group or from alpha beta readers? How do you get them to give you what you need and not ruin your book?
[Howard] One of the things that I’ve learned through experience just in talking with people is that I can tell if somebody’s going to be a worthwhile critique if that person and I can argue about a book that we have both read and articulate different opinions on the book and understand where each other is coming from, even though we had different responses to it. It’s one thing, “Oh, yeah, I loved this book,” and then it’s just how much we loved this book. But if we are each picking at a different aspect of the book… You know, if you sit down with your friends and have a book club with them where you are reading books together and allowing yourselves to critique the books, you will find alpha and beta readers in that crowd, I think, pretty quickly.
[Dan] When I… One of the things that I try to do is make sure that I am sending it to the right people. So, for example, when I write a horror novel, I will make sure one of my beta readers is Steve Diamond, because he knows that genre inside and out. So I know that the comments I’m getting from him are going to be the kind of comments I’m looking for. Where is when I write like my cyberpunk stuff, I don’t usually send it to him, I’ll send it to somebody else. So that’s kind of an early level just filtering system. Beyond that, I always tell my beta readers, not my alpha readers, just to give me their reaction. Don’t try to fix this problem, just point it out to me. Tell me what you liked, what you didn’t like, and why. Then let me… You tell me the symptoms and I will diagnose.
[Valynne] The other thing that I like to do is that I am very aware of my weaknesses as a writer. So I like to give it to people whose strengths are opposite of what mine are. I think that is really helpful for me because I know there are things I just miss. If it were up to me, I would write a book that was straight dialogue all the way through. I love writing dialogue, and half the time, my editor is saying, “Where are these people standing? What are they doing?”
[Valynne] “What are they wearing?”
[Valynne] I’m just not good with details like that. So I think it’s good to… You know, other people have other strengths. Ultimately, we want to be strong in all the areas, but we still have our own strengths, and so I have someone who is really good at pacing, I have someone who is really good with character development, and that’s… If I’m struggling with a particular thing in a book, that’s how I send it out to a beta reader.
[Dan] Now, with… Very quickly, when we have those face-to-face conversations with alpha readers, I use Wendy and Matt, and I will sit down and I will ask them tiered questions. “I’m not very happy with this scene. Do you like it?” I won’t tell them why I’m not happy. Get their reaction first. Then they’ll say, “Oh, yeah. There’s something wrong with that.” I’ll say, “Well, I think it’s this. What do you think?” Just kind of get deeper with every question. So that I’m not leading them on, but I can drill in specifically.
[Brandon] We’ve found… It’s very useful to get general reactions from a group, and then ask specific questions. That’s a big difference between alpha and beta readers, to me, is alpha readers I can go and say, “All right. This is obviously broken. Why do you think it’s broken?” Beta readers, I would never do that.
[Brandon] We have to stop for our book of the week. Howard, you’re going to tell us about Death by Cliché.
[Howard] Yes. Actually, Death by Cliché 2, Wrath of Con. That’s spelled c-o-n. Our hero is trapped in a role-playing game. Like in the game universe, not stuck at the table on Thanksgiving. Trapped in the game universe, and the players, he discovers, are at a convention. But that’s… What convention they’re at is actually irrelevant, what’s relevant is the adventure that’s happening in the story, and the horrors of what happens when someone has an artifact that lets them control the weather.
[Brandon] Can I pick up book 2 and read it?
[Howard] Yeah, you can pick up book 2 and read it now. It’s… I’m currently offer reading, I think, book 5 for Bob.
[Dan] Do you need to have read book 1?
[Howard] You don’t need… Oh, sorry, that’s the question. You don’t need to read book 1. You don’t need to read book 1. It reads very nicely as a comedic fantasy novel.
[Dan] Somewhere, Bob is shouting, “Yes, you have to read book 1!”
[Howard] But you should buy book 1.
[Howard] Because supporting living authors.
[Howard] One of the things that I wanted to bring up about that whole series from Bob is that our writing group has changed over time as he’s written these. What we found is that Sandra is the one he’s going to for character motivation and often sensitivity reader issues, and I’m the one he’s going to for wordsmithing, joke-smithing, the setups of the funny bits. The most critical piece that we’ve discovered as we’ve critiqued is that when there are things that we love, we put smiley faces in the manuscript because… Not just because Bob needs to be told, “Yay. You’re a good writer. See, this part didn’t suck.”
[Howard] But because when you are editing, it’s easy to lose track of the things that made a chapter wonderful. We want to put pins in those so that they don’t get broken during the edit process. That was long, sorry.
[Brandon] That’s all right. Bob’s a good friend of a lot of us here. We like him. He’s funny and his books are funny. So you should all go read them.
[Brandon] You mentioned the term sensitivity reader, which Dan mentioned to me has been… kind of people have been shifting away from that.
[Dan] So, sensitivity reader is a phrase that became popular because as we started focusing more and more on diversity, and I know that Valynne wants to talk about this, so let me just say very quickly. We started… The idea is, if you’re going to write about say a black person and you are not black, you are going to want to have someone who is read it so they can make sure that you are presenting their culture and their background correctly. However, we’re not… Kind of the nomenclature is moving away from sensitivity to targeted beta reader, because really, it’s just the same thing as I suck at writing cops, so whenever I write about police, I have two friends who are police officers or family of police officers that I give it to them and say, “Make sure that I got this right.” It’s the same thing in dealing with another culture or another ethnicity or another religion or whatever. So, just using one blanket term for all of them is a little more common now.
[Valynne] I think that the word targeted is very important because I think especially when were talking about writing diverse characters, we often tend to approach it like it’s a paint-by-numbers, which it’s not. It’s not I know a Japanese person, I’m writing a Japanese character, so this Japanese person I know can represent the entire Japanese culture and everyone in it. For example, I was talking to Brendan’s sister-in-law this morning and explaining that I am fourth-generation Japanese. What that means is that I do not speak Japanese. I am pure Japanese, but I do not speak Japanese. My experience is vastly different than someone who is first-generation Japanese whose second language is English. So, targeted means that when you’re writing a character, try to find beta readers that are as close to that character’s experience as you can get. Because you need to understand like the generation of the character, the geographical location of the character, and how that affects the character. There are so many things that make a huge difference. So the more accurately you can target that to beta readers, the better chance you have of not offending anyone and just presenting it accurately and with respect.
[Howard] At this point, fair listener, you probably recall several episodes we’ve done this year under the general heading of What Writers Get Wrong About, with that whole idea that as a writer, unless you have a subject matter expert, whether that’s an astronaut or a police officer or a third-generation Taiwanese person, you are likely to get things wrong unless you have offer readers in that demographic who can help you get things right.
[Dan] Now I want… What Valynne said about being very specific is very important. I recently had a really interesting experience. I went down to Guadalajara for the book fair there, because I’ve got, among other things, one of my book series is about a Mexican-American hacker. The Bluescreen series. I used to live in Mexico. I have a lot of friends in Mexico, and importantly to this story, I used my Mexican friends as might targeted beta readers. They are not Mexican-American, they are Mexican. So the character ended up feeling very authentically Mexican, and the books have been huge in Mexico. The Mexican-Americans, like the Latino population here in the US, haven’t really picked them up because it doesn’t ring true to them. It rings true to Mexico, because that’s who I used to make sure I got it right. So specificity is important.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and do our homework which Valynne is going to give us. You wanted someone to do this. Right?
[Valynne] Homework is to take something that you have already written. Identify something within your manuscript that you can send to a targeted beta reader for.
[Brandon] And then do it.
[Howard] And then send it to them.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.