I love the Writing Excuses Podcast - Brandon, Dan and Howard, three published best seller-authors chat for fifteen minutes on one particular aspect of writing per episode (their podcast is on iTunes and their blog is linked in my bloglist). Last week they covered Alpha readers and writing groups.
Good Alpha readers are hard to find, and when you do find them, don't let them go. The requirements include:
1. An ability to see your broad view, character and story archs.
2. They offer suggestions that make your story better, while still letting it be your story. Some Alphas may want to change your story into something they would prefer to read, rather than helping you refine what you already wrote.
3. These are not proof readers - they should be able to ignore the little mistakes in order to focus on the main points of your story.
4. Their criticism and questions help improve your story.
Since I am new to this whole process, and I have two amazing Alpha readers in Kristen Bower and Sara McBride, I think I hit the lottery. I'm not letting them go! As for Beta readers, I am hoping I have a few of those willing to read my story after my drafting is done (someday...).
What's different about a Beta reader? These are the people who read your story after the Alphas have helped you guide your glob of ideas into a coherent, possibly brilliant, novel. Beta readers can point out grammar, syntax, spelling errors, and passive voice if they see it. They might be helpful at wordsmithing various sentences and paragraph to punch up the writing in general. They are the ones getting the full punch of your twists and turns, they are the ones who see the whole thing.