What’s the difference, where do I find them, and how many do I need?

Draft, Feedback, Revise, Repeat

So one of the questions I see crop up on the twitter #writingcommunity asks about the difference between alpha readers, beta readers, and CPs. Usually, I just give my 240 character response:

My take:
Alpha readers: Point out the big horrific plot problems.
Critique Partners: Swap MS’s and read line by line, chapter by chapter, to improve.
Beta Readers: Did CP’s miss anything? Do you like it?
Editor: Polishing, pro eyes
Gamma Readers: Sanity check. Good to go?

But I thought I’d write a little more about it really just to document my own process, but also for anyone else that might be interested. Please keep in mind this is really just what I’ve found based on my opinion and limited experiences. I am NOT an expert, and please do whatever works for you!

Phase 1: Finish the first draft and celebrate the birth of another story into the world!

This is always an exultant moment, but by the time I finish writing the first draft, I have a super love-hate relationship with my story, and I’m ready to put it down for awhile. Yes, it’s done, but it needs so much work, it’s almost hard for me to look at. All I can see is flaws. So, personally, I have to step away and work on something else while I let that sucker cool off.

Eventually, I come back to it, and almost always, I feel a lot better after we’ve had some time apart. Does it still have flaws? Absolutely. But resting for a while gives me the objectivity to see the diamond in the coal. The bones are there, and everything is fixable. This is where I take my second read-through to make the draft actually readable. I fix the glaring inconsistencies and mistakes, and any big problems that I already have answers for.

Phase 2: Enter the Alpha Readers.

At this point, I’m still in a bit of a vulnerable state. Will people like this story? Or will they want to unceremoniously burn it in a dumpster fire? I have absolutely no idea. Plus, it’s still very rough. While reading it is now possible, it certainly won’t be enjoyable. So, I get the readers that I know will read it no matter what. And even if it’s the worst thing they’ve ever consumed, they will still read the next thing I put in front of them. I have three alpha readers: my dad, my mom, and my husband.

Their feedback is super general. They are looking for:
1. Big, huge plot holes,
2. Things they hate,
3. Things that just don’t work, and
4. Specific things that I tell them I’m worried about.

But even though they love me, these readers are not afraid to tell me the characters they don’t like, the things that will have to change, and how bored they were in the beginning….

But no matter what they say, (so far, my favorite comment has been… “So, 20% in, I really didn’t think I would make it through this…” 😂) I trust these readers, I know they have my best interest at heart, and I also know they’re not going to lambaste me on the internet.

I take their feedback, revise, and now I’m ready for internet strangers.

Phase 3: Hello, Critique Partners!

This is where it starts to get tricky. Critique Partners are the writers that will swap their WIP for mine and then go line-by-line to help improve it. I’m essentially swapping developmental and line edits with another writer. I usually put out a request on twitter’s #CPmatch, but the Beta Reader Group on Goodreads is really active too. Still, finding these people can be tough.

An ideal CP:
1. Has sharp writer’s eyes,
2. Enjoys my premise and writing style,
3. Has a premise and writing style that I enjoy,
4. Has a MS ready to swap, and
5. Is generally just be a fun person to work with.

Basically, they’re a unicorn.

But I have met some unicorns! And those unicorns are SO, SO, SO important. A good CP can make a story ten times a better, and a bad CP can ruin it.  I always swap 1-3 chapters before I agree to a CP swap. I need to make sure that I’m going to enjoy working on their MS for weeks or months, I can give them usable input, they can also give me good feedback, and they’re pleasant to work with.

Some common reasons I have turned down CP swaps:
1. Their style was so different than mine, I didn’t feel like I could give them good feedback,
2. They didn’t seem to really like my MS,
3. Their revision pace was too fast for me, or
4. Their length/genre wasn’t as good of a match for mine as another potential CP.

When I first traded WIPs with CPs, I had a one-year-old, was pregnant with my second, and working my full-time job, so I was SUPER slow. I took on way too many CPs to begin with, and I really couldn’t keep up with all of them. Also, I just didn’t have a lot of experience, so I was less sure of what to comment on and what to look for.

Blargh. Sorry, early CPs! I kind of sucked.

But the great thing about being a CP is that the more you do it, the more you learn! Every CP has strengths and weaknesses, and each one has taught me something different. And through my writing journey, I’ve picked up advice from editors, writing classes, writing craft books, and other writers that I utilize to critique and can pass on to my CPs.

Also, now I understand that I can only take on two CPs at a time, and I’m very clear that I can promise no more than a chapter a day. (Sometimes I go faster, but I’d rather under-promise) Having two is super important though, because they often pick up on different things, and sometimes they will contradict each other. Also, if you’re unsure about a change that one proposes, you can always get a second opinion from the other.

I usually like to do CPs through google doc share, but I always give each CP a fresh doc so they don’t influence each other. Weekly voice-chats are also incredibly useful. I was a little shy to commit to this at first, but it’s amazing at what ideas come up during discussion and conversation that don’t come up just in comments. Also, it helps build trust and rapport in a way that written comments don’t.

After my first round of two CPs, I have another round of revision/editing, and I almost always reach out for at least one more CP. Usually there are MUCH less recommendations/changes in this round, which then indicates that I’m ready for a beta reader.

The one thing I still ask myself that I don’t have a good answer for yet is:
How do you keep CPs?

I mean it’s all well and good when you both have a WIP that you’re ready to exchange and they roughly match word count/genre… but what about the next WIP in six months to a year from now? Will they be ready to swap again? Will they like my new premise?

I’m still trying to figure this out. Usually after CP’ing for someone, I leave an open offer that I’d be willing to CP for their future WIPs, and they reciprocate. But I haven’t yet asked anyone to CP for me in exchange for an IOU. It’d just make me feel too guilty. I think the best-case scenario is that you constantly have stuff to exchange and bounce off each other (either proofing, revising, editing, ideas, outlines, whatever), but I’m still a greenhorn at maintaining long-term writing relationships. So, if you have any tips on this, please drop in the comments!

 Phase 3: Phew! Now, we’re ready for beta readers.

Beta readers are the people who are now reading my work more as a reader than a writer. While they might point out typos or incorrect grammar, they’re primarily reading to share their opinion as a reader. Do they like it? Do they like the characters? Was it too slow? Too predictable? Did anything confuse them?

Sometimes, if I can’t commit to CP’ing for someone, I’ll offer to swap a beta read instead. It’s much more enjoyable and less time intensive. As a beta reader, I usually try to leave my stream of consciousness in the comments. If I see something I love, I say so. If I see something I don’t like, I say so. If I gasp, I write *GASP.*

I usually try to leave a little summary at the end of each chapter too, just on if I liked it. If I didn’t like it, then I explain why I didn’t (even though it’s usually kind of obvious from my comments throughout). Then at the very end, I complete this questionnaire which helps me to organize all my thoughts.

But with my beta readers, I just ask them to give feedback in whatever way feels natural to them. If they’re unsure, I just point them to the questionnaire, and then after they read, I might have a few follow-up questions.

I try to do at least two rounds of two beta readers, but sometimes it just depends on how much feedback I’m getting back, and how many people answer my request. I usually do a couple swaps with writers, I have a couple sharp non-writer friends that beta for me, and I also really like M.K. Editing’s professional beta reading service for $25. They’re fast and give me about three pages of usable feedback. Definitely worth the $25 for the 8+ hours I save.

After the post-beta revision, I’m starting to feel pretty confident in the WIP. It’s at this point where I might start sending out some queries.

Phase 4: Editor

After beta’s, the MS goes to an editor. I think of the editor as that final, professional CP that will really make the MS shine. I’ve had great experiences with both Beta Frank and Charlie Knight, but they’re tons of options. Just be aware that most editors are fully booked several months in advance so you have to get on their schedules early.

Phase 5: Proof Reader

I skipped this to save some money with my first book, and I relied on friends and family to help me proof. I also spent forever reading the story forwards and backwards (non-figuratively) to get it up to snuff. In a word, it was a huge PITA. So, I recommend this if you have the funds, and I’ll be trying it out myself for my next WIP.

Phase 6: Finally, Gamma Readers!

After the editor and proofreader, my WIP is now publish-ready! I’ll format and read it one more time (or maybe ten), and then it goes off to the gamma readers. These are also family members or close friends (I use 3-4), but they’re really reading just for enjoyment. I’ll ask them to look for typos and make sure the formatting shows up okay on their Kindles, but really this is just a sanity check/confidence booster for me before I send it out the ARC’s to the wolves.

Phase 7: And then… gulp… ARC readers….

I talk a little bit about this in my self-pub lessons learned so I won’t go into too much detail. But at this point, it is not an WIP, it is an ARC (advance reader copy.) The e-book available on Amazon for pre-order, the narrator is recording the audiobook, and the story is how it’s going to be. I will edit inconsistencies and typos if the ARC readers find them and are kind enough to point them out. If they give it a bad review though, I will thank them for their time and throw a small pity-party, but the book will not change.

The point of ARC readers is to generate good buzz prior to release date. So, I try to choose these people wisely and cross my fingers. Then, when the good reviews come in, bust open that champagne—because after all that hard work, someone loved the book, and that’s what it’s all about! 🥳

Numbers at a Glance

I’ve only written four books at point and I’ve only published one, so obviously I’m still a very new writer, and I’m constantly revising this process, but here’s a little chart to show you how many people have read my books at each stage so far.

 Odriel’s HeirsThe Gatekeeper of PericaelCodename: CNDRLAIdriel’s Children
Editor11 1 1
Proofreader01 1 1
Gamma4 3 2 3

For my next book, The Gatekeeper of Pericael, once I have a proofreader and three gamma’s read it, a total of fifteen people will have read it before I finalize it. Maybe that seems like a lot to you or maybe it seems like just a few, but everything is relative, and what’s important is that your process works for you!

Thanks so much for stopping by, and I hope you found this helpful! If you have any questions, or if you’re ever interested in being a CP, beta reader, or ARC reader one of these days, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Odriel’s Wings,

In order, images from Pixabay (by Comfreak, Geralt, Clker-Free-Vector-Images, Cdd20, InspireCreateCelebrate, AnneKarakash, Tumisu, and Free-Photos) and Unsplash (by Dane Topkin)