Why You Need Readers
If you are a career-track author, your editor should be a professional. She should be trained to help you with certain aspects of your manuscript. However, she is still only one person. It would be cool to be able to hire a team of editors, but most of us can’t afford that. If an editor is given a first draft and asked turn it into a structurally sound, grammatically clean, marketable manuscript, there are many more stages for her to go through to get to the end product than if she starts with a third or fourth draft.
So, instead of giving your editor your first draft, let your readers help you suss out as many problems as you can before you hand it over. When your manuscript is in better condition, your editor can take it further, and a cleaner initial manuscript means lower rates.
What Kinds of Readers Do I Need?
There are many names for the people who help authors as they turn their ideas into fully fledged books. Professional editors are among the last in line. Before them are the readers.
I am not going to tell you which kinds of readers to use and in what order. You can choose just one type or all of them. Each writer has a different process that works well for him. Some authors crave the reinforcement of reader feedback as they build a manuscript (alpha readers), while others prefer not to have that outside influence until their manuscript is solid and complete (beta readers).
However, I do recommend that you get feedback from at least one reader on your complete manuscript before you show it your editor. For my own writing, I sometimes show chapters to my critique group as I write. However, I prefer a round of self-editing before I get outside feedback on the manuscript as a whole. In any case, my work will have seen at least two rounds of revisions and usually two rounds of reader feedback before I send it to my editor.
Please note: It may be a bit of a process to find readers that are dependable that can give you the kind of feedback that you need. If you find good readers, cherish them, pay them in chocolate, and use them whenever they are willing to help you.
Alpha readers are your first readers. They read the manuscript as it is created or once the first draft is complete. If your alpha readers agree, you can send them your manuscript in pieces as it is finished and modify your work as you go on the basis of their feedback.
Beta readers see the manuscript after it is complete and usually after at least one round of self-editing. Beta readers are people who read books. They are your test audience and can be anyone from your grandma to your friends from work to online group members.
Because beta readers are like a pilot audience, make sure that at least some of your readers are readers in your genre. They will be less impressed by the newness of your subject matter and will be more likely to give you feedback that you can use in the competitive marketplace that is book publishing.
Most beta readers are free, but you can find paid beta readers or get paid “manuscript critiques” or “manuscript evaluations” from editors as well. This may not save you a ton of money, but it should guarantee that your readers finish your manuscript and get it back to you in a timely fashion (which many beta readers fail to do).
Critique partners are other writers with whom you exchange pieces of writing regularly. It’s a tit-for-tat system of “if you read mine, I’ll read yours.” Unlike alpha and beta readers, your critique partner has a vested interested in helping you out because he wants you to read and comment on his manuscript as well. He has also had the experience of writing and hopefully even studying the craft more than your average alpha or beta reader.
Online or in-person critique groups can be a great place to not only get feedback but also learn to give it. A great critique group can carry you through various stages in your writing career, but with any group, online or in person, take your time to get to know the group and make sure that it fits your style and your goals before submitting your own work.
Critique Groups and Partners
To find writing groups, check your local newspaper, do online searches (“writers’ groups near me”), or start your own. I found my critique group through a statewide writers’ club that has chapters throughout my state.
Even if your local or online writing group doesn’t do critiques, once you get to know people, you might be able to find others in the group willing to exchange writing with you on an individual basis, and thus, a critique partnership will be born!
Kudos aren’t critical feedback, and they won’t make your book better.
Alpha and Beta Readers
Use friends, family, and coworkers, but choose carefully. Your readers should be the kind of people who aren’t afraid to tell you what they really think. Kudos aren’t critical feedback, and they won’t make your book better.
You can find alpha and beta readers through online or in-person writing groups (see Critique Groups and Partners).
A couple of simple searches will show that there are many beta reader groups on both Goodreads and Facebook. Also, K. M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors put together this handy list of places to find beta readers.
Because the subject of getting feedback from beta readers and others could be a whole series in itself, here are a few other blog articles to help you out:
“How and Why I Use Online Alpha-Readers While Writing Novels,” Mary Robinette Kowal
“How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book,” Kristen Kieffer, JaneFriedman.com
“How to Find the Right Critique Partner: The 6-Step Checklist,” K. M. Weiland, Helping Writers Become Authors
“Should You Have an Alpha Reader?” Janice Hardy, Fiction University