Over the last few months, I’ve been surprised to encounter several people (including established authors) who don’t know the distinction between alpha and beta readers. As a consequence, this got put into my Stack of Stuff (aka the list of “Gee, I should write a blog post about that” topics).

The most common definition I’ve encountered among authors, fellow editors, and laymen was that an alpha reader was the first reader, and everyone else who read it before publication was a beta reader. That’s wrong; not completely off, mind you, but wrong. I was a little surprised, but it makes some sense that people would think that just from the names. There are other distinctions, though, even among people who know the origin of the two terms.

That same origin might be the cause of some of the confusion, though. The two terms come from software testing, where alpha testing is done during development by professionals while beta testing is conducted with members of the general public. The fact that “alpha reader” and “beta reader” come from something so tech-based might make the terms seem a bit arcane to people not already steeped in this stuff, and the vast majority of people I’ve talked to who didn’t know the definitions weren’t people who considered themselves geeks.

Of course, I learned about the definition so long ago that I can’t even remember how it first came up, only that I knew it was a while before I connected it with “beta test software” and the like. So who knows? Tracking the differences in my friends and coworkers has been interesting, but hardly conclusive. And probably boring to most people, so let’s skip ahead to the meat of the matter.

When you’re looking for an alpha reader, you’re looking for someone who knows about writing. You might ask experts in fields you’re writing about (law, history, medicine, engineering, astronomy, whatever) to read parts of your book before it’s finished, but they aren’t alpha readers. An alpha reader is examining your story, identifying parts that work, making suggestions about parts that don’t, and generally giving you semi-professional feedback. Your alpha readers are generally reading along as you write and rewrite the first few drafts. They generally have to know something about writing themselves, so most alpha readers are either writers and editors or they’re close friends and family who know you and your writing very well. (The most common non-professional alpha reader seems to be the author’s spouse. That probably won’t surprise anyone.)

Like with software companies entering beta-testing phases, you want a beta reader when you feel you’re almost ready for publication. It might not be quite done, but you feel most of what is remaining is a matter of polish and line-editing. You don’t necessarily have everything phrased the way you want it, but you’re done moving chapters around and changing the ending. Your writing might need some work, but your story is finished. That’s when you get your test audience: trusted friends, significant fans, people who would be normally reading the sort of thing you’re writing. They’re a sampling of your audience, and as such they don’t need to have any professional writing knowledge. You just want to make certain that your target audience likes your book.

Oh, that doesn’t mean you can’t have beta readers looking for mistakes, whether they be typos or factual errors. That’s actually encouraged most of the time; in fact, publishers and authors alike, when they send out something to be read, will usually only mention proofreading when they don’t want you to do it.

So where does an editor fall in all of this? That was another source of confusion among people I talked to. The simple answer is that an editor — meaning your editor — is in a different category. If you’re submitting a finished manuscript to a publisher, you’ve probably gone through both alpha and beta reading first. You might have even hired a freelancing editor at some point. You might be discussing ideas with your editor before you even start writing. An editor can come in at any point in the process. Our job as editors is to help you build, create, shape, and entertain. Depending on the project and where you are in it, your editor might be dealing with abstract plot sketching or something as specific as figuring out what word-choice habits a bit character might have in chapter twelve.

But as vital as my job is, I’m only one person — and as I repeat so often I sound like a broken record even to myself, even an editor needs an editor. Cultivate your alpha and beta readers. They’ll catch things that you and your editor miss. They’ll have ideas that you and your editor wouldn’t think of. Usually they won’t be what you want; only you can tell your story, after all, but even knowing what will not happen helps when you’re not certain what will happen. Bouncing ideas off your readers as well as explaining to them why their suggestions won’t work will improve your art.