I have to admit, when I first came across this term, I had no idea what a beta reader actually was. I assumed most writers went the route of traditional publishing and hired an editor to make sure their manuscript was squeaky clean. In fact, it wasn’t until I started reading YA fiction and participated in my first NaNoWriMo that I discovered the invaluable jewels that are beta readers. These are people who are so in love with reading they are willing to sludge through your draft. Not sludge. Meticulously read through your draft and make careful notes to help you improve your story. They should all receive medals. Seriously. If you have a story/novel/poem/comic book that you have revised a few times and want to get some feedback on before sending it out, get yourself a beta reader.
Beta readers, for the most part, don’t read to correct grammar and punctuation (though I am sure they would if you asked them to). They are looking for continuity, plot holes, believability. If they sign on to read your manuscript, know they are mad about your genre. They know what works, what doesn’t, and how they want to feel when the story is over. They read more than you (no, seriously, they do) and they are well versed in the ins and outs of sci-fi/romance/horror/literary or historical fiction, whatever you’ve decided to dabble in.
Never worked with a beta before? Here’s what I have found. Because they are well read, because they have an extensive background in your genre, always, ALWAYS give your beta a polished copy of your work. Sure they are getting a draft, just make sure it isn’t the first one. When you send your book/story/etc. give it to them in the format they prefer. Some readers will want a printable file, some will read on a Kindle. Whatever makes it easier for your reader to finish your work. If you are after specific feedback, a list of questions can accompany your file. You can turn to Google for pages and pages of questions to ask your beta but the one I think is most important is “was there a point where you lost interest?” If someone is suddenly moved to check Facebook or Instagram while in the middle of a chapter, some serious revisions are necessary. Not all feedback will be useable (let the words of Neil Gaiman guide your revisions) but often, the good stuff stings a little. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t defend your position. Be polite, thank them. These are people who talk about the books they read and they could become advocates for your story, if they like it.
Once you’ve tweaked your story, you are ready to find a new group of readers or send out your work for publication. Just don’t forget your betas. Mention them in your thanks. Send them a fruit basket. Read their manuscripts and offer feedback. Keep the betas happy!