So with a show of hands, who uses a beta reader? What? You’re not sure what a beta reader is? Or even if you need one? How about where to find one?
First and most importantly – what does a beta reader do for an author? Well, that depends on the author and the reader. A good beta reader is someone objective, who will give you input on the story (does the action/dialog fit the characters/place; is there a continuity issue?) first. Is it nice if they notice a typo, missing punctuation, or a dangling modifier? Yes, but it’s more important for them to find something glaringly wrong with your PLOT or character arc. Why yes, I am suggesting that plot and character are more important than grammar. Grammar can be cleaned up in editing but if your STORY doesn’t have the chops, it isn’t going to matter if you have all your misplaced modifiers not misplaced.
Second – do you need one? Some authors do, some don’t. Most authors have a person (or persons) who they bounce ideas off of, ask to read their rough, rough, rough, rough drafts. You need to have someone you can use as a sounding board, who will tell you the truth CONSTRUCTIVELY. Telling you “hey, that’s bad” without telling you WHY doesn’t really help – it more hinders. A solid beta reader is a step removed emotionally from your manuscript, and will be able to tell you if you really said what you think you said in your story. A solid beta can tell you your pacing is off because a character’s backstory was told in two pages of narrative, instead of a slow reveal through dialog or action.
If you are writing a story and something in the story is completely outside your knowledge base, I highly recommend that you find someone who DOES know a great deal about the subject, and ask them to review your file. Research is a great thing but can only get you so far. Oh come on, we’ve all read those stories that have all the characters referred to as soldiers, when they’re in the Air Force/Navy/Marines. What? They’re not all soldiers? No, they’re not, and you will throw readers that know the difference right out of your story no matter how engaged they were at that point.
How to find this paragon who is going to improve your writing immensely? It takes time, and some trial and error. Putting something on social media that says “hey, anyone want to beta?” MIGHT work, BUT (and this is a big but) even though someone might read and enjoy your books, or similar books in the same genre, it doesn’t mean that they would be a good beta reader.
It’s all great to ask your friends/family if they want to take a look at your story but remember, you need someone that is going to look at it with an objective point of view. Telling you “I love it; it’s great; don’t change a word” might be what you want to hear but is it really the truth? A beta reader should be able to tell you “okay I like the scene on page 22 but on pages 30-34 you’ve got a big infodump and on page xx…” you get the point. They should identify where your strengths AND weaknesses are in your story.
A better way might be to ask around. Who do your fellow authors use? Does your editor know of anyone? Some authors may also function quite well as betas, others may only know how to do, not how to teach. Network with writing social groups and see if anyone knows of a good beta or can recommend a service. Some freelance editors might be able to beta, as well as line edit. It never hurts to ask.
Once you have a candidate on the hook, ask them questions like: why do you want to beta? Do you have any experience (and proof reading college term papers isn’t the right kind of experience)? What authors do you like to read and why? See if they understand some writing/literary terms such as ‘showing instead of telling’, emotional notes, character through-lines, and plot points. You’re going to be trusting your words – your baby – to this person. Interview them, give them some test pages to edit, determine if the two of you ‘click’. You don’t have to become the best of friends (sometimes it’s better if you don’t!), but you should be able to share a laugh.